You've heard that Linux is Free Software. If that's true, then why did you have to buy it? Just exactly what are you getting when you pay $49.95 at the store?

Free Source

Why Buy Free Software?

So you go to the local computer store and buy a copy of SuSE Linux 8.0. You're exited. You take it home and install it. You read the manual. And then you see it. A sentence that says "Linux is free software". Now you're angry. You're wondering why you spent forty or fifty dollars on something that is free.

Don't be angry. Take a good look at what you did get for your money. You received six CD-ROMS. That's a lot. Even with a 56K modem connection, that's worth the download time alone. And you got a lot more than just Linux on those disks. You got over 2000 applications. And some of those applications are commercial that would cost much more than fifty dollars if purchased separately. You also received a very good manual. In fact, it's probably the best Linux manual out there. And finally, you got installation support. Have a problem installing SuSE? they'll help you get it running.

Oh! And there's one more thing you got with your boxed set of SuSE. You received the programming source code for every piece of free software on those six CDs. In fact, that's why Linux is known as "Free Software".

What is Free Software?

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) was the first to try to formally define free software, although it had existed long before them. The Debian Project and the Open Source Initiative have more formal definitions.

Software is free if the user has permission to...

The first criteria seems rather obvious, but for some software it is not. Software that prohibits use by governments or corporations cannot be free software. The next point allows the user to redistribute the software. Note that there is no prohibition against selling the copies! This is why companies like SuSE and Redhat can sell Linux.

The third and fourth criteria are crucial to free software. Without them, Linux would be merely freeware. Free software allows the users to fix bugs or add enhancements, and then give away the changed software. Modifying software requires that the source code be available somewhere. Even if you are not a programmer, this is still beneficial to you, since you can use the fixes and enhancements that someone else made.

What is Open Source Software?

Since the FSF first coined the term "free software", there has been confusion over the word "free". To many people, "free" meant that the software had no cost. To others, it meant that it was synonymous with freedom. Neither definition was completely accurate. Because of this, a group of programmers decided that a new term was needed, and came up with "Open Source Software". This means the same thing as "free software", but the emphasis is now on source code being open to modification, rather than on an easily misdefined word.

All Open Source Software is free software. I prefer the term "free software" because it has more of a positive emotional sound to it than the dry and corporate sounding "Open Source". Sometimes I even use the term "Free Source".

Is Free Software Something New?

Not at all. Free software has been around since the first days of computers. And it never went away. For the most part, free software came from the academic side of computing. But both the academics and the commercial developers made some mistakes that kept free software on the fringe for a long time. The academics made the mistake of thinking that commercial software shouldn't concern them. And the commercial developers for their part dismissed academic contributions as unsuitable for real world use.

Once these views were found to be wrong, each side started contributing to the other. But it took a while for the last remnants to be dispelled. During this time, both sides were frequently hostile to the other. The academic side accused the corporations by exploitation and domination. The commercial side accused the universities of utopianism. But free software is not pro-academia or anti-commercial. Even today, echoes of these arguments can still be heard.

What Does Licensing Have To Do With It?

If software is placed in the Public Domain then it is free software. But if it is not, then it falls under copyright law which does not allow redistribution by anyone but the author. Software authors put their creations under various licenses that give permissions to modify and redistribute the software. In order to be free software, the software must either be Public Domain, or have a license that allows the user to copy, modify and redistribute the software.

There are many free software licenses. The main free software licenses are the Artistic License, BSD, GPL, LGPL, MIT/X, MPL and QPL. You can find copies of these licenses at www.opensource.org. Because licenses are legal documents, you should read them over carefully before modifying anyone elses software. None of them are as simple as the free software definition up above.

What Are the Benefits of Free Software?

Let's rephrase the question. What are the benefits of free software for those people who are not developers and have absolutely no ability to modify source code? One obvious answers is that it doesn't cost you anything to get it. You might pay for a CD copying fee, or for a nice manual and a support hotline, but the software itself can be obtained for free. Another obvious answer is that you can give a copy of the software to your friend or neighbor and not feel guilty about software piracy.

But there are some non-obvious answers as well. One biggie is that even though you are not a programmer, other people are, and they can submit bug fixes and enhancements that you can use. Once a bug is fixed, it is immediately available. You don't have to wait six months to a year for a fix-pack. The typical commercial software company can only use its own developers to create their software with. But projects like KDE have hundreds of active developers, with hundreds more who have submitted bug fixes and new features. And that's just one project! Some free software projects have thousands of people actively working on them.

Free software is not bound by the dictates of a company's marketing department. There is little pressure on free software developers to rush things through, so it is very rarely of slipshod quality. Free software developers work on their projects because they want to, and not because their boss tells them to. Free software is one of the few places left where old fashioned craftsmanship still abounds.

Can People Make Money With Free Software?

Absolutely! However, you can't make very much money selling just the software. Put too high a price on it and you customers will simply download it instead. However, a lot of people like the convenience of having a shrink-wrapped box with a CD and a manual. And some companies won't use downloaded software, but are more than willing to pay for exactly the same thing through more traditional channels.

You can also charge for support. This is a major way that many Linux distributors make money. You can also sell customized versions of the software for those who have special or particular needs. The ways to make money from free software are limited only by your imagination and market needs.

But don't expect to make Microsoft styled profits off of free software. It simply won't happen. There's just as much money to be had as an individual programmer, just not as much as software companies are typically used to.

I Heard On Slashdot That...

Forget Slashdot! Opinions are like certain parts of your anatomy. Everyone has them, and they all stink. Don't worry about what Slashdot posters think about free software. In fact, don't worry what I or anyone else thinks about it. Your brain is your own, so use it and come up with your own opinions.