What does free and open-source software mean?

Anton P. | June 14, 2021

Free and open-source software encompasses two terms that constitute the nature of programs. Free software, as you might guess, refers to tools that people can install and use freely. On the other hand, open-source software represents applications that have their source code accessible publicly. Thus, free and open-source software are programs that users have the freedom to use, review, modify, and distribute.

What is free and open-source software?

For a program to be free and open-source software (FOSS), it needs to fulfill several requirements:

  • Supply developers and other interested parties with access to source code of the tool.
  • Provide the program entirely for free to download, modify, and use.

It might be that some applications will qualify partially. For instance, many digital tools might be free, but they won’t necessarily have their source code available online.

The same goes for open-source software. While the majority of tools in this category are free, there are exceptions. For instance, some licenses are restrictive in that they do not allow users to modify programs for personal use. However, very few such special cases exist.

Thus, it is standard that free and open-source software allows users to not only use the tool for free. As a bonus, tech-savvy individuals can create modified versions for their convenience.

Free software movement explained

To fully comprehend the term free software, it is essential to dig a little deeper. A common misconception is that the main criterion for such tools is price or the lack thereof. However, the free software movement relates more to the users’ rights and freedoms than the costs. Free software refers to tools that give users the liberties to copy, distribute, run, study, modify, and improve them.

Thus, users get the privilege to control how the program serves them. These broad criteria typically relate to several established freedoms:

  • Freedom 0. The right to use the program as one sees fit for any reason.
  • Freedom 1. The liberty to inspect the inner workings of the program and modify it according to one’s needs. The source code of the program must be available for this to be possible.
  • Freedom 2. The right to redistribute copies to other interested parties.
  • Freedom 3. The permission to share one’s modified versions of programs with others.

Without fulfilling these criteria, a program does not fully qualify to be free software. Thus, programs that do not meet the requirements are non free or proprietary. In these instances, developers and owners fully control the use, distribution, and mechanics of programs.

The free software movement grants users complete control over the tools they use. The programs might be free in the monetary sense as well. However, the free software movement embarks to treat “free” as libre, not gratis.

Many consider Richard Stallman as the founding father of this freedom-based concept. He founded the Free Software Foundation and GNU project. In many ways, his contributions helped shape the movement and guide it in the right direction.

Open-source software

Free and open-source software would not be complete without its second component. The criteria for open-source software are much looser than for free programs. The crucial element here is that the source code of the software would be publicly accessible. Thus, it means anyone can get copies of the source code files.

However, licensing agreements might present different conditions. These provisions determine the use of source code. Thus, licenses dictate what copyright holders allow in terms of use, distribution, and modification.

Experts also note that open-source projects drive creativity, sense of community and stimulate innovation. Thus, free and open-source software allows like-minded developers to collaborate. While benefits might not be revenue-oriented, it offers value in other forms.

Over the years, the concept of open source included programs outside its traditional scope. In some cases, it represented software in beta testing when external parties had the opportunity to try early versions. At some point, open source referred to equipment released without a patent.

Pros and cons of free and open-source software

Free and open-source software builds a friendly ecosystem for experimenting, improving, and distributing software. Anyone has the right to copy, examine, and change source code of programs classified as FOSS. The primary advantage of this is the beneficial cooperation between original developers and other interested parties. Together, they can improve software, detect common issues, resolve bugs, and so much more.

However, researchers also see security pitfalls in the use of free and open-source software. For instance, detected bugs eventually end up on the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) for all to see. If entities rely on open-source projects and delay installations of updates, they are potential victims of exploits.

Furthermore, there are no guarantees that open-source software will receive adequate support in the future. It is common for projects to get dropped and software to remain vulnerable.

Nevertheless, free and open-source software plays a crucial role in users’ digital lives. They might serve as alternatives for proprietary software like GIMP does for Photoshop. In addition to being budget-friendly, they allow both users and enterprises to modify tools based on their needs. The only downside is that parties need to pay attention to ensure their software remains safe to use.

Final thoughts

Free and open-source software carries many benefits to users. One clear-cut advantage is that users have the chance to dig deeper into the programs’ procedures.

Thus, such tools promote values of transparency, collaboration, and accessibility. It also presents an excellent opportunity for tech enthusiasts and developers to grow by tweaking existing software. As a result, the free and open-source software ecosystem is much more prominent and central for freedom in general. Even Microsoft, a company that had publicly scrutinized Linux, has become a strong contributor to the open-source community. Thus, the future of free and open-source software is bright, as we might see even more valuable additions and improvements.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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