The Free Software Definition

The Free Software Definition

The Free Software Definition written by Richard Stallman and published by Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as being software that ensures that the end users have freedom in using, studying, sharing and modifying that software. The term "free" is used in the sense of "free speech," not of "free of charge."[1] The earliest known publication of the definition was in the February 1986 edition[2] of the now-discontinued GNU's Bulletin publication of FSF. The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section of the GNU Project website. As of April 2008, it is published there in 39 languages.[3] FSF publishes a list of licences which meet this definition.


  • The definition and the Four Freedoms 1
  • Later definitions 2
  • Comparison with the Open Source Definition 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

The definition and the Four Freedoms

The definition published by FSF in February 1986 had two points:[2]

In 1996, when the website was launched, "free software" was defined referring to "three levels of freedom" by adding an explicit mention of the freedom to study the software (which could be read in the two-point definition as being part of the freedom to change the program).[4][5] Stallman later avoided the word "levels", saying that you need all of the freedoms, so it's misleading to think in terms of levels.

Finally, another freedom was added, to explicitly say that users should be able to run the program. The existing freedoms were already numbered one to three, but this freedom should come before the others, so it was added as "freedom zero".[6]

The modern definition defines free software by whether or not the recipient has the following four freedoms:[7]

Freedoms 1 and 3 require source code to be available because studying and modifying software without its source code is highly impractical.

Later definitions

In July 1997, Bruce Perens published the Debian Free Software Guidelines.[8] This was also used by Open Source Initiative (OSI) under the name "The Open Source Definition", the only change being that use of the term "free software" was replaced by OSI's alternative term for free software, "open-source software".

Comparison with the Open Source Definition

Despite the philosophical differences between the free software movement and the open source movement, the official definitions of free software by the Free Software Foundation and of open source software by the Open Source Initiative basically refer to the same software licences, with a few minor exceptions. While stressing the philosophical differences, the Free Software Foundation comments:

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

External links

  • The Free Software Definition - published by FSF
  • GNU's Bulletin, volume 1, number 1 - a February 1986 document defining free software. Possibly the first published definition.
  • The Free Software Definition with notes, by Free Software Foundation Europe
  • Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software, by Richard Stallman