The principles of Free Software are simple but it is important to not
get confused by the underlying complexity caused by its long history.
Learn about the four freedoms and their meaning,
the fundamentals about Free Software licenses,
the most common synonyms, and the advantages that Free Software provides.

Looking beyond the circle of software itself, you can read more about
the interplay of Free Software with other fields
like education, procurement and democracy.

The Four Freedoms

Free Software refers to freedom, not price. It guarantees its users the
essential four freedoms. The absence of at least one of these freedoms
means an application is proprietary, so non‐Free Software.

  • Use

    Free Software can be used for any purpose and is free of
    restrictions such as licence expiry or geographic limitations.

  • Study

    Free Software and its code can be studied by anyone, without
    non‐disclosure agreements or similar restrictions.

  • Share

    Free Software can be shared and copied at virtually no cost.

  • Improve

    Free Software can be modified by anyone, and these improvements
    can be shared publicly.


The four freedoms are given by a software’s licence. Software licences
define the conditions under which a programme can be used and reused. For
it to be Free Software, the licence text must contain at least the four
freedoms. The Free Software
and the Open Source Initiative
maintain lists of reviewed and approved licences. An application can
usually not be considered Free Software, if its licence does not appear in
one of these lists.

There are a multitude of licences with different focal points, and a
software product or parts of it can also be licenced under more than one
licence. The actual selection is a strategic question but you are advised
to pick one of the most widely used licences.


Over the course of time, people came up with additional labels for Free
Software. Often the motivation for these terms is to highlight different
aspects and to avoid confusion.

Free Software was first defined with the four freedoms mentioned above by
the GNU project in 1986. In
1998, “Open Source” has been set up as a marketing campaign for Free
Software but with the same freedoms in mind. Other widely known labels for
Free Software are “Libre Software”, initiated to avoid the ambiguity of
the English word “free”, and “FOSS” or “FLOSS” as abbreviations for “Free
(Libre) Open Source Software”.

The level of freedom a particular software offers is always determined by
the licence, not the label. In other words, don’t get confused by
different terms for the same features. If you are interested in the
historical background and why we prefer the original term, you can Read more…


Free Software is about freedom. In practice, this provides numerous
advantages for users, organisations, businesses and administrations.

  • Autonomy

    Free Software helps to develop and maintain tailored software that
    suits your needs, not just the vendor’s business model.

  • Collaboration

    Free Software can be shared and used in a non-exclusive way by
    everyone – serving the public good.

  • Share & Copy

    A Free Software licence allows a limitless number of installations
    to be run, without paying extra.

  • No Lock-in

    Free Software licenses reinforce independence from vendors and
    provide more choice in service providers.

  • Reuse Code

    Free Software provides the freedom to reuse the code for other

  • Innovation

    A Free Software licence encourages innovation for your software.

  • Competition

    Free Software prevents monopolies and enhances competition.

  • Security

    Free Software allows for independent security checks that help
    close security holes faster.

Further insights

The numerous advantages of Free Software are a benefit in itself, but also contribute positively to other technical and non-technical fields. Since the FSFE’s foundation in 2001, we have been exploring different areas and how Free Software can make a difference.

  • Democracy:
    technology greatly influences today’s society. That is why control over
    technology has to be in the hands of everybody, not just a small group.
  • Open Standards: Open
    Standards allow people to share all kinds of data freely and with
    perfect fidelity. They prevent lock-in and other artificial barriers to
    interoperability, and promote choice between vendors and technology
  • Education: Free
    Software is pedagogically superior, its basic spirit involving freedom
    and cooperation is the same spirit of education in a democratic
  • Public
    : Free Software is a perfect fit for the public
    sector. It is a public resource that government organisations can use,
    study, improve, and share with each other. For citizens, this means
    transparency, cost efficiency, and the freedom to interact with their
    government in the way that suits them best.

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