The Free software ideology is an idea that all software should respect the users' freedoms, namely:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Free software, that is, is software that respects these freedoms.
This is the definition of the Free Software Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting free software among users. One of their most known projects is the [GNU operating system].
Most well-known free software
Many well-known and popular products are free software. For example, Firefox and Linux are both released as free software, as well as Chromium (an alternative version of Google Chrome). Other free products include The GIMP (an image editor), LibreOffice (an office suite) and VLC (a media player).
"Free software" vs. "open source"
This definition of free software is often confused with open source software, which also describes a kind of software one can freely use, modify and distribute, but with different criteria. Nearly all free software is also open source, and vice versa. Where the two terms differ is in the ideals -- while the free software movement puts user freedom above everything, advocating use of products which contain no proprietary software, the open source movement is not targeted towards replacing all proprietary products.
Is free software "communist"?
Some Conservatives and Microsoft employees in disguise often keep referring to free software as "communist" in an attempt to frighten others. This is massively wrong; especially as the Conservative image of communism usually includes elements that are impossible with free software (does free software censor the media? does free software send millions into prisons?).
In fact, Richard Stallman, the founder of the FSF, has openly proclaimed himself a liberal and has frequently expressed disagreement with the policies of the Soviet Union. Some other free software developers may, indeed, follow communist beliefs, but does that make the software they create any worse?
Free software in practice
A question that often comes when discussing free and open source software is whether using free software gives actual practical freedoms. The answer is, of course, "yes". While the described freedoms themselves don't bring any practical benefits, these benefits are derived from them.
For example, it is much harder to put a back door or intentionally limit the functionality of a free program, as anyone else can get the source code and remove the back doors or limitations.