September 17, 2022 Software Freedom Day: What you need to know about Software Freedom

By Samuel Ancer

By Sam Ancer

What is Free Software?

Free Software is an ideology that values promoting various freedoms within the software space, the goal being that users and their communities have the freedom to do different things with software

Free Software is run by four key freedoms:

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish and for any purpose 
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study the program as you wish (this means you need access to the source code of a program)
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to spread copies of a program to other users
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to spread your modified version of a program to other users

It’s worth pointing out that Software Freedom doesn’t mean free software, it is more about access and permissions to distribute software. While many softwares that subscribe to Software Freedom are free to access, you can charge people to access a software, so long as you don’t deny any of the above freedoms.

It’s also important to know that Software Freedom and Open Source are similar but distinctly different ideologies.

Free Software versus Open Source

The main difference between Software Freedom and Open Source Software is that Free Software is guided by ideas around ethics while Open Source is more around the most efficient way to develop software.

What both ideologies have in common is the idea that source code must be freely accessible, distributable, and modifiable, with the ability to spread modified versions as you see fit.

Free Software will not consider any programs that deny their core freedoms to be Free Software. 

For example Digital Rights Management (DRM) is something that could never be Free Software because it denies users the ability to spread copies of a program to other users (Freedom 2). However, so long as a DRM makes its source code freely available and modifiable, it can be considered to be Open Source.

The main point that Software Freedom tries to argue is that Free Software should be about serving its users, not the creators of the software. Something like DRM does nothing to serve its users, it's about denying distribution of software, so it cannot be considered a Free Software.

In a sentence, Software Freedom is a social movement whereas Open Source is a form of software development.

Software Freedom is about ethics in the development space whereas Open Source is about practical ways of developing software.

While you might think that this means that the two philosophies are at odds, the reality is that Software Freedom is at odds with non-free software, whereas Open Source can exist as Free Software, so long as it subscribes to the four freedoms.

The History of Software Freedom

On the 27th of September 1983 Richard M. Stallman posted that he would be founding GNU (GNU’s Not Unix), a copyright free Unix operating software. 

In November 1984 Stallman attended the first ever Hackers conference in Sausalito, California and made the first public declaration for Software Freedom.

At the conference Stallman was interviewed by documentary makers and made the following statement:

If I'm offered a chance to use a piece of software provided I would agree not to share it with anyone, I feel that it would be wrong, it would spiritually? hurt me to agree. So I don't want them investing in software that's owned. And I don't believe that anything is justified to encourage them to invest in software that's owned. I think the really great software has been done by hackers who were doing it because they loved it, because it was playful cleverness, and that will continue in any case.

Richard Stallman at the Hacker's Conference in Sausalito, California

On the 4th of October 1985 the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded by Stallman and first started off by helping his GNU project.

In the early 90’s the FSF began working to help Free Software causes as well as developing a Free Software copyright licence known as the GNU General Public Licence (GNU GPL) which was designed to identify and help distribute software that subscribed to the Free Software values.

In 1998 Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI). The goal of Open Source was to remove the confusion around the term “Free Software” as some people would misinterpret it thinking that the software would be free to distribute, instead of referring to freedoms around software.

In October 1999 the FSF and UNESCO partnered together to found the Free Software Directory, a list of Free Software licenced under the GNU GPL.

The first Software Freedom Day was celebrated on the 28th of August 2004.

The Free Software movement is still going strong to this day, with over 160 000 programs listed on the Free Software Directory.


This year Software Freedom Day will have over 300 events in more than 100 cities across the world.

Nearly 40 years after Stallman’s first announcement about Free Software, it's becoming more clear about the value of Software Freedom and ethical software practices.

Let us know what you think about Software Freedom Day and if this article taught you anything about Software Freedom.