by March 1, 2008 0 comments

There are lots of myths and realities about open-source and free software
that cause lots of confusion. Is open-source really free or vice versa? If so,
then why do so many vendors claim to sell open-source software, and yet attach a
price tag to their products? Does open-source mean Linux, and is Linux a free
OS? If this is true, then both open-source and Linux should be free. The fact of
the matter is that none of these statements are necessarily true. As if all this
wasn’t enough, add to it the plethora of different licensing terms and what you
get is a big bag of confusion. So let’s clear the air a little and separate
myths from realities.

What does ‘free’ sw really mean?
Let’s first define free and then move to its relation to Open-source. The
word ‘free’ has two meanings. One is free software, or freeware that somebody
creates and distributes unconditionally. There are no license agreements, the
software is distributed as is, and the owner takes no responsibility whatsoever
if the software does something unwarranted to your system(s). You’re on your own
if your system crashes.

The other definition of free software has been created by the FSF or Free
Software Foundation ( The FSF was formed by Richard Stallman, the
founder of GNU software and the famous GNU General Public License (GPL). The FSF
has its own definition of free software. In this definition, free does not mean
‘no cost’. It’s free as in freedom or liberty to run, modify, distribute, or
improve the software. Needless to say that access to the program’s source code
is a must to fulfill at least three of these needs.

GNU software and GPLed software come under this ‘free’ software definition,
i.e. you have the right to run it for your own requirements, modify its source
code to suite your needs, distribute it for free or even sell it. But when you
do modify and distribute it, you can’t put any restrictions that will negate any
of the conditions in FSF’s definition of free software. For instance, you must
distribute the source code along with the program as a part of the agreement.
But if you put restrictions, it violates the license agreement.

What’s open-source then?
Let’s now move on to open-source software. This is the same as free software
of FSF, but it comes under the banner of the Open Source Initiative (,
which is another independent group that’s involved in open-source community
building and educating. The OSI has its own 10-point definition for open-source
software. This definition also has many of the things in the ‘free’ software’s
definition, like free redistribution, access to source code, modifications, etc.

The interesting thing is that both FSF and OSI are committed to achieving the
same objective-that of giving everyone the right to run, modify, distribute or
improve software. However, their philosophies towards achieving the goal differ.
We’ll not get into those in this story. What’s important to understand is that
both organizations help software developers create licenses that are compatible
to their definitions. This is a very important task because there are tons of
licenses out there in the open-source world, which make the definition of
open-source and its implications extremely confusing.

Everybody makes their own claims and put in their own restrictions. To ease
the process, both FSF and OSI have put up lists of software licenses that are
approved by them, i.e. they’re in accordance with their definitions. In fact,
there are many licenses that overlap across both as well.

Can I sell open-source or free software?
Yes, neither of the two types of software put any restrictions on
commercialization. In fact, there’s a dual-licensing model that’s gained
popularity, which allows you to distribute two different versions of the same
software, one for free community distribution and improvements, and the other as
a commercial package. There’s a separate article on dual-licensing to explain
this more clearly.

Where does Linux fit into all this?
Linux was first made available in the open-source world under the GNU
General Public License. The OS was distributed freely along with the source
code, and has never looked back since then. Since it was an open-source
Operating System, other communities made use of it and brought out their own
versions. Such versions are called Linux distros. We’ve all heard of Linux
distros like RedHat, Suse, Debian, CentOS, etc. In face, the PCQ Linux 2008
bundled with this issue is also a distro. Some of these distros are freely
available and usable, while others are commercial. RedHat for instance, has a
community version called Fedora, and the commercial version is known as RedHat
Linux. Likewise, Suse has a community edition called openSUSE and a commercial

But just because Linux is open-source doesn’t mean that vice versa is also
correct. Open-source doesn’t necessarily mean Linux. Today, you’ll find lots of
open-source software that run on Windows and other platforms. Many popular
applications that were available on Linux have also been ported to Windows.
Apache, Perl, MySQL, are just a few well-known open-source apps available for
both Linux and Windows.

Types of Licenses
Before using any open-source software, it’s important to see what type of
license agreement it has adopted. There are so many licenses that their
explanation would fill up this entire story. Basically, just about every major
open-source community out there has released their own license, e.g. Apache
Software License, Mozilla Public License, Eclipse Public License, and so on.
There are also commercial entities who’ve also released their licenses in the
public, e.g. a Microsoft Public License, Lucent Public License, etc.

A few popular licenses include GNU GPL, GNU Lesser GPL, Apache Software
License, Mozilla, and Eclipse. The GNU GPL is the most popular license in the
open-source world. The license is now in its 3rd revision. A word of caution
here though is that different open-source software are based on different
versions of the GPL. So you’ll still find software based on the first and second
versions of GPL. Another important thing to remember about GPL and similar
licenses is that if you go ahead and use some GPL code in your application, you
need to release its source code as well — whether you want to or not. Many
people use FSF/OSI applications only because they feel they are “cheaper”. But
very few actually change the applications’s code itself, for e.g. tons of web
sites are done on PHP, but probably less than 1% would have ever changed the
source code of PHP itself. Incidentally, even commercial companies are giving
out their source under their own licenses. A very good and important example is
the Microsoft .NET Framework. The entire source code is now available for you to
download and view.

lastly, it’s important that before you use any open-source software, read its
software license agreement. The thing to remember is that even if an open-source
software itself is available free of cost, you’ll still end up paying for its
support. Depending upon the mission criticality of its usage, you’ll choose an
appropriate agency for it. If it’s for simple, internal use, you might even go
for inhouse manpower to support it, whereas if you use it for your offices
across the globe, then you’ll need an agency that can provide you such level of

This was just a broad overview on open-source and free software and the
various license policies. It should by no means be considered as legal advice.
If you need legal advice on open-source and free software licensing, then please
consult a lawyer.

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