Free and open-source software

A screenshot of free and open-source software: Linux Mint running the Xfce desktop environment, Firefox, a calculator program, the built-in calendar, Vim, GIMP, and VLC media player

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is computer software that can be classified as both free software and open-source software.[lower-alpha 1] That is, anyone is freely licensed to use, copy, study, and change the software in any way, and the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve the design of the software.[3] This is in contrast to proprietary software, where the software is under restrictive copyright and the source code is usually hidden from the users.

The benefits of using FOSS can include decreasing software costs, increasing security and stability (especially in regard to malware), protecting privacy, and giving users more control over their own hardware. Free, open-source operating systems such as Linux and descendents of BSD are widely utilized today, powering millions of servers, desktops, smartphones (e.g. Android), and other devices.[4][5] Free software licenses and open-source licenses are used by many software packages. The open-source software movement is an online social movement behind widespread production and adoption of FOSS.


In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to 1980s, it was common for computer users to have the source code for all programs they used, and the permission and ability to modify it for their own use. Software, including source code, was commonly shared by individuals who used computers. Most companies had a business model based on hardware sales, and provided or bundled software with hardware, free of charge. Organizations of users and suppliers were formed to facilitate the exchange of software; see, for example, SHARE and DECUS.

By the late 1960s, the prevailing business model around software was changing. A growing and evolving software industry was competing with the hardware manufacturer's bundled software products; rather than funding software development from hardware revenue, these new companies were selling software directly. Leased machines required software support while providing no revenue for software, and some customers able to better meet their own needs did not want the costs of software bundled with hardware product costs. In United States vs. IBM, filed 17 January 1969, the government charged that bundled software was anticompetitive.[6] While some software might always be free, there would be a growing amount of software that was for sale only. In the 1970s and early 1980s, some parts of the software industry began using technical measures (such as only distributing binary copies of computer programs) to prevent computer users from being able to use reverse engineering techniques to study and customize software they had paid for. In 1980, the copyright law was extended to computer programs in the United States[7]previously, computer programs could be considered ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes, which are not copyrightable.[8][9]

In 1983, Richard Stallman, longtime member of the hacker community at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, announced the GNU project, saying that he had become frustrated with the effects of the change in culture of the computer industry and its users.[10] Software development for the GNU operating system began in January 1984, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded in October 1985. An article outlining the project and its goals was published in March 1985 titled the GNU Manifesto. The manifesto included significant explanation of the GNU philosophy, Free Software Definition and "copyleft" ideas.

The Linux kernel, started by Linus Torvalds, was released as freely modifiable source code in 1991. Initially, Linux was not released under a free or open-source software license. However, with version 0.12 in February 1992, he relicensed the project under the GNU General Public License.[11] Much like Unix, Torvalds' kernel attracted the attention of volunteer programmers.

FreeBSD and NetBSD (both derived from 386BSD) were released as free software when the USL v. BSDi lawsuit was settled out of court in 1993. OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995. Also in 1995, The Apache HTTP Server, commonly referred to as Apache, was released under the Apache License 1.0.

In 1997, Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a reflective analysis of the hacker community and free software principles. The paper received significant attention in early 1998, and was one factor in motivating Netscape Communications Corporation to release their popular Netscape Communicator Internet suite as free software. This code is today better known as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.

Netscape's act prompted Raymond and others to look into how to bring the FSF's free software ideas and perceived benefits to the commercial software industry. They concluded that FSF's social activism was not appealing to companies like Netscape, and looked for a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of sharing and collaborating on software source code. The new name they chose was "open source", and quickly Bruce Perens, publisher Tim O'Reilly, Linus Torvalds, and others signed on to the rebranding. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 to encourage use of the new term and evangelize open-source principles.[12]

While the Open Source Initiative sought to encourage the use of the new term and evangelize the principles it adhered to, commercial software vendors found themselves increasingly threatened by the concept of freely distributed software and universal access to an application's source code. A Microsoft executive publicly stated in 2001 that "open source is an intellectual property destroyer. I can't imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business."[13] This view perfectly summarizes the initial response to FOSS by some software corporations. However, while FOSS has historically played a role outside of the mainstream of private software development, companies as large as Microsoft have begun to develop official open-source presences on the Internet. IBM, Oracle, Google and State Farm are just a few of the companies with a serious public stake in today's competitive open-source market. There has been a significant shift in the corporate philosophy concerning the development of free and open-source software (FOSS).[14]


Free and open source software is an umbrella term for software that is free and open source software. Free and open source software is provided free of charge, allows the user to inspect the source code, and provides a relatively high level of control of the software's functions compared to proprietary software.

According to the Free Software Foundation, "Nearly all open source software is free software. The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values."[15] Thus, the Open Source Initiative considers many free software licenses to also be open-source. These include the latest versions of the FSF's three main licenses: the GPL, the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL).[16] Thus, terminology of free and open source software is intended to be neutral on these philosophical disagreements.

There are a number of related terms and abbreviations for free and open source software (FOSS or F/OSS) or free/libre and open source software (FLOSS).

Free software

Richard Stallman's Free Software Definition, adopted by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), defines free software as a matter of liberty, not price.[17] The earliest known publication of the definition of his free software idea was in the February 1986 edition[18] of the FSF's now-discontinued GNU's Bulletin publication. The canonical source for the document is in the philosophy section of the GNU Project website. As of August 2017, it is published there in 40 languages.[19]

Open source

The Open Source Definition is used by the Open Source Initiative to determine whether a software license qualifies for the organization's insignia for open-source software. The definition was based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines, written and adapted primarily by Bruce Perens.[20][21] Perens did not base his writing on the four freedoms of free software from the Free Software Foundation, which were only later available on the web.[22] Perens subsequently stated that he felt Eric Raymond's promotion of open source unfairly overshadowed the Free Software Foundation's efforts and reaffirmed his support for free software.[23] In the following 2000s he spoke about Open source again.[24][25]


Benefits over proprietary software

Privacy and security

Manufacturers of proprietary, closed-source software are sometimes pressured to building in backdoors or other covert, undesired features into their software.[26][27][28][29] Instead of having to trust software vendors users of FOSS can inspect and verify the source code themselves and can put trust on a community of volunteers and users.[30] As proprietary code is typically hidden from public view only the vendors themselves and hackers may be aware of any vulnerabilities in them[30] while FOSS involves as many people as possible for exposing bugs quickly.[31][32]

Personal control, customizability and freedom

Users of FOSS benefit from the freedoms to making unrestricted use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute such software. If they would like to change the functionality of software they can bring about changes to the code and, if they wish, distribute such modified versions of the software or often − depending on the software's decision making model and its other users − even push or request such changes to be made via updates to the original software.[33][34][35][36][30]

No costs

FOSS by definition is free of charge although donations are often encouraged. This also allows users to better test and compare software.[30]

Quality, collaboration and efficiency

FOSS allows for better collaboration among various parties and individuals with the goal of developing the most efficient software for its users or use-cases while proprietary software is typically meant to generate profits. Furthermore in many cases more organizations and individuals contribute to such projects than to proprietary software.[30] It has been shown that technical superiority is typically the primary reason why companies choose open source software.[30] Companies might build in artificial barriers, inefficiencies or undesired functionality to increase monetary return.

Drawbacks to proprietary software

Security and user-support

According to Linus's Law the more people who can see and test a set of code, the more likely any flaws will be caught and fixed quickly. While this benefits from having the source code made public high levels of participation aren't guaranteed. Having a grouping of full time professionals behind a commercial product can in some cases be superior to FOSS.[30][31][37] There also can be undesired functionality be built intentionally into FOSS and not get detected or fixed − e.g. due to no or few users checking the source code, changes to the software getting denied or the source code being hardly readable.

Furthermore publicized source code might make it easier for hackers to find vulnerabilities in it and write exploits. This however assumes that such malicious hackers are more effective than white hat hackers which responsibly disclose or help fix the vulnerabilities, that no code leaks or exfiltrations occur and that reverse engineering of proprietary code is a hindrance of significance for malicious hackers.[31]

In general it can be found that FOSS is more secure and has good user-support with some exceptions of specific − especially niche or obsolete − software solutions.

Hard- and software compatibility

Often FOSS is not compatible with proprietary hardware or specific software. This is often due to manufacturers obstructing FOSS such as by not disclosing the interfaces or other specifications needed for members of the FOSS movement to write drivers for their hardware − for instance as they wish customers to only run their own proprietary software or as they might benefit from partnerships.[38][39][40][41][42][43][44]

Bugs and missing features

While FOSS can be superior to proprietary equivalents in terms of software features and stability in many cases FOSS has more unfixed bugs and missing features when compared to similar commercial software.[45] This varies per case and usually depends on the level of interest and participation in a FOSS project. Furthermore unlike with typical commercial software missing features and bugfixes can be implemented by any party that has the relevant motivation, time and skill to do so.[37]

Less guarantees of development

There is often less certainty in FOSS projects gaining the required resources / participation for continued development than commercial software backed by companies.[46] However companies also often abolish projects for being unprofitable and often large companies rely on and hence co-develop open source software.[32]

Missing applications

As the FOSS operating system distributions of GNU/Linux has a lower market share of end users there are also fewer applications available.[47][48]

Technical skills and user-friendliness

GNU/Linux may require more effort or technical knowledge to set up and maintain.[47] As many GNU/Linux users make extensive use of the command-line many applications lack user-friendliness such as a GUI.

Adoption by governments

Country Description
 India The Government of Kerala, India, announced its official support for free/open-source software in its State IT Policy of 2001,[49] which was formulated after the first-ever free software conference in India, Freedom First!, held in July 2001 in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. In 2009, Government of Kerala started the International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS).[50] In March 2015 the Indian government announced a policy on adoption of open source software.[51][52]
 Germany In the German City of Munich, conversion of 15,000 PCs and laptops from Microsoft Windows-based operating systems to a Debian-based Linux environment called LiMux spanned the ten years of 2003 to 2013. After successful completion of the project, more than 80% of all computers were running Linux.[53]
 Venezuela In 2004, a law in Venezuela (Decree 3390) went into effect, mandating a two-year transition to open source in all public agencies. As of June 2009, this ambitious transition was still under way.[54][55]
 Malaysia Malaysia launched the "Malaysian Public Sector Open Source Software Program", saving millions on proprietary software licenses until 2008.[56][57]
 Peru In 2005 the Government of Peru voted to adopt open source across all its bodies.[58] The 2002 response to Microsoft's critique is available online. In the preamble to the bill, the Peruvian government stressed that the choice was made to ensure that key pillars of democracy were safeguarded: "The basic principles which inspire the Bill are linked to the basic guarantees of a state of law."[59] In September, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced its formal adoption of the OpenDocument standard for all Commonwealth entities.[60]
 Brazil In 2006, the Brazilian government has simultaneously encouraged the distribution of cheap computers running Linux throughout its poorer communities by subsidizing their purchase with tax breaks.[60]
 Ecuador In April 2008,[61] Ecuador passed a similar law, Decree 1014, designed to migrate the public sector to Libre Software.[62]
 United States In February 2009, the United States White House moved its website to Linux servers using Drupal for content management.[63] In August 2016, the United States government announced a new federal source code policy which mandates that at least 20% of custom source code developed by or for any agency of the federal government be released as open-source software (OSS).[64] In addition, the policy requires that all source code be shared between agencies. The public release is under a three-year pilot program and agencies are obliged to collect data on this pilot to gauge its performance. The overall policy aims to reduce duplication, avoid vendor 'lock-in', and stimulate collaborative development. A new website provides "an online collection of tools, best practices, and schemas to help agencies implement this policy", the policy announcement stated. It also provides the "primary discoverability portal for custom-developed software intended both for Government-wide reuse and for release as OSS".[64] As yet unspecified OSS licenses will be added to the code.[65]
 France In March 2009, the French Gendarmerie Nationale announced it will totally switch to Ubuntu by 2015. The Gendarmerie began its transition to open source software in 2005 when it replaced Microsoft Office with across the entire organization.[66]
 Jordan In January 2010, the Government of Jordan announced a partnership with Ingres Corporation (now named Actian), an open source database management company based in the United States, to promote open-source software use, starting with university systems in Jordan.[67]
 Uganda In September 2014, the Uganda National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) announced a call for feedback on an Open Source Strategy & Policy[68] at a workshop in conjunction with the ICT Association of Uganda (ICTAU).

Adoption by supranational unions and international organizations

"We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable -- one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could."

Official statement of the United Space Alliance, which manages the computer systems for the International Space Station (ISS), regarding why they chose to switch from Windows to Linux on the ISS.[69][70]

In 2017, the European Commission stated that "EU institutions should become open source software users themselves, even more than they already are" and listed open source software as one of the nine key drivers of innovation, together with big data, mobility, cloud computing and the internet of things.[71]

Issues and incidents

GPLv3 controversy

While copyright is the primary legal mechanism that FOSS authors use to ensure license compliance for their software, other mechanisms such as legislation, patents, and trademarks have implications as well. In response to legal issues with patents and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Free Software Foundation released version 3 of its GNU Public License in 2007 that explicitly addressed the DMCA and patent rights.

After the development of the GNU GPLv3 in 2007, the FSF (as copyright holder of many pieces of the GNU system) updated many of the GNU programs' licenses from GPLv2 to GPLv3. On the other hand, the adoption of the new GPL version was heavily discussed in the FOSS ecosystem,[72] several projects decided against upgrading. For instance the linux kernel,[73][74] the BusyBox[75][76] project, AdvFS,[77] Blender,[78] and as also the VLC media player decided against adopting the GPLv3.[79]

Apple, a user of GCC and a heavy user of both DRM and patents, switched the compiler in its Xcode IDE from GCC to Clang, which is another FOSS compiler[80] but is under a permissive license.[81] LWN speculated that Apple was motivated partly by a desire to avoid GPLv3.[80] The Samba project also switched to GPLv3, so Apple replaced Samba in their software suite by a closed-source, proprietary software alternative.[82]

Skewed prioritization, ineffectiveness and egoism of developers

Leemhuis criticizes the prioritization of skilled developers who − instead of fixing issues in popular applications and desktop environments − create new, mostly redundant software to gain fame and fortune.[83]

He also criticizes notebook manufacturers for only optimizing their own products privately or creating workarounds instead of helping fix the actual causes of the many issues with GNU/Linux on notebooks such as the unnecessary power consumption.[83]

Commercial ownership of open-source software

Mergers have affected major open-source software. Sun Microsystems (Sun) acquired MySQL AB, owner of the popular open-source MySQL database, in 2008.[84]

Oracle in turn purchased Sun in January, 2010, acquiring their copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Thus, Oracle became the owner of both the most popular proprietary database and the most popular open-source database. Oracle's attempts to commercialize the open-source MySQL database have raised concerns in the FOSS community.[85] Partly in response to uncertainty about the future of MySQL, the FOSS community forked the project into new database systems outside of Oracle's control. These include MariaDB, Percona, and Drizzle.[86] All of these have distinct names; they are distinct projects and can not use the trademarked name MySQL.[87]

Oracle v. Google

In August, 2010, Oracle sued Google, claiming that its use of Java in Android infringed on Oracle's copyrights and patents. The Oracle v. Google case ended in May 2012, with the finding that Google did not infringe on Oracle's patents, and the trial judge ruled that the structure of the Java APIs used by Google was not copyrightable. The jury found that Google infringed a small number of copied files, but the parties stipulated that Google would pay no damages.[88] Oracle appealed to the Federal Circuit, and Google filed a cross-appeal on the literal copying claim.[89] Oracle won the appeal, but Google won a subsequent retrial in 2016.

As part/driver of a new socioeconomic model

By defying ownership regulations in the construction and use of information − a key area of contemporary growth − the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) movement counters neoliberalism and privatization in general.[90]

By realizing the historical potential of an "economy of abundance" for the new digital world FOSS may lay down a plan for political resistance or show the way towards a potential transformation of capitalism.[90]

Benkler's new economy

According to Yochai Benkler, Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, free software is the most visible part of a new economy of commons-based peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. As examples, he cites a variety of FOSS projects, including both free software and open-source.[91]

This new economy is already under development. To commercialize FOSS, many companies move towards advertisement-supported software. In such a model, the only way to increase revenue is to make the advertisement more valuable. Facebook was criticized in 2011 for using novel methods of tracking users to accomplish this.[92]

This new economy has alternatives. Apple's App Stores have proven very popular with both users and developers. The Free Software Foundation considers Apple's App Stores to be incompatible with its GPL and complained that Apple was infringing on the GPL with its iTunes terms of use. Rather than change those terms to comply with the GPL, Apple removed the GPL-licensed products from its App Stores.[93]

See also


  1. FOSS is an inclusive term that covers both free software and open-source software, which despite describing similar development models, have differing cultures and philosophies.[1] Free refers to the users' freedom to copy and re-use the software. The Free Software Foundation, an organization that advocates the free software model, suggests that, to understand the concept, one should "think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer". (See "The Free Software Definition". Retrieved 4 February 2010.) Free software focuses on the fundamental freedoms it gives to users, whereas open source software focuses on the perceived strengths of its peer-to-peer development model.[2] FOSS is a term that can be used without particular bias towards either political approach.


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  2. Feller 2005, pp. 101–106, 110–111.
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  5. Claburn 2007.
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  73. Torvalds, Linus. "COPYING". Retrieved 13 August 2013. Also note that the only valid version of the GPL as far as the kernel is concerned is _this_ particular version of the license (ie v2, not v2.2 or v3.x or whatever), unless explicitly otherwise stated.
  74. Kerner, Sean Michael (2008-01-08). "Torvalds Still Keen On GPLv2". Retrieved 2015-02-12. "In some ways, Linux was the project that really made the split clear between what the FSF is pushing which is very different from what open source and Linux has always been about, which is more of a technical superiority instead of a -- this religious belief in freedom," Torvalds told Zemlin. So, the GPL Version 3 reflects the FSF's goals and the GPL Version 2 pretty closely matches what I think a license should do and so right now, Version 2 is where the kernel is."
  75. corbet (2006-10-01). "Busy busy busybox". Retrieved 2015-11-21. Since BusyBox can be found in so many embedded systems, it finds itself at the core of the GPLv3 anti-DRM debate. [...]The real outcomes, however, are this: BusyBox will be GPLv2 only starting with the next release. It is generally accepted that stripping out the "or any later version" is legally defensible, and that the merging of other GPLv2-only code will force that issue in any case
  76. Landley, Rob (2006-09-09). "Re: Move GPLv2 vs v3 fun...". Retrieved 2015-11-21. Don't invent a straw man argument please. I consider licensing BusyBox under GPLv3 to be useless, unnecessary, overcomplicated, and confusing, and in addition to that it has actual downsides. 1) Useless: We're never dropping GPLv2.
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Further reading

Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: FLOSS Concept Booklet
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: FOSS A General Introduction
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