Understanding Free and Open Source Software


There are many misconceptions floating around about free and open source software (foss). The purpose of this article is to address them and to better inform people.

The first response I seem to get when I discuss ‘free software’ is, oh but you have to pay for quality, or maybe, well how can developers afford to give away software for nothing. Well in the first instance, free refers to liberty rather than cost. Freedom to copy, change and modify software and indeed you may actually pay for access to free software, although this is generally not the case. Software code is like any other type of knowledge; it should not be hidden from the user.

Another frustrating and misleading idea is that foss kills innovation. If anything free software is the key to innovative creation, we only need to look at Firefox web browser or WordPress blogs to see non-proprietary software flourishing.

So you may ask why do we need to concern ourselves with free software if proprietary software works and can offer stability? In modern society computers, televisions and mobile phones are commonplace; indeed we have come to rely upon them. The software controls and transmits our sensitive information; we should be in control of this software and have a better understanding of how it works in order to maintain our liberty and control.

Other frustrating misconceptions about foss include political aspects. People at times assume that foss is akin to communism; this is a falsity. You can indeed have private ownership over free software, you can modify at will and can reap the rewards of its use. A free software licence only requires that if you do redistribute the software, that you must keep it free; allowing others to modify and redistribute. Or if you wish to keep your modifications private, you must ensure that the original free software is kept separate and that your addition does not contain the original work. The free software license is simply a legal and ethical contract between the programmer and the end-user.

I feel that whilst this information is relatively basic it is all to often taken for granted or misunderstood, so if this sounds repetitive then humour me please. Oh and Happy New Year!