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Is Free Software Really Free?

Free software isn't necessarily free of cost. Instead, free, Open Source software is free in the sense that anyone who acquires it, by any means, is free to use and redistribute that software. For example, you are free to sell or give away your copy of Linux, provided you include the GPL (GNU General Public License), and nobody can prevent you from doing so.

You are also free to modify Open Source software, extract portions of the source code for your own use, and put that software to work in any way you wish. An Open Source distributor cannot restrict you from using the software in, say, genetic research, or in some other controversial field. It is up to you how to use Open Source software.

That fact remains true even if you sell Open Source software on a CD-ROM, or perhaps on the Internet. The software is still unencumbered because your customers may give it away or resell it themselves. But you are free to charge whatever you want for the program or operating system. The only limitation is that you may not restrict how your customers use or distribute the software—their rights are the same as yours, and must remain so. In addition, in order to be considered true Open Source software, it must be distributed with all of its source code, or that source code must be freely available over the Internet.

These facts lead to one key advantage that commercial software can never match. Because many programmers work on Open Source software, it evolves naturally according to the needs of its users. What a concept! Contrast this with the typical commercial program that spouts features dictated by management's view of the marketplace, causing programmers to waste time creating whiz-bang elements that nobody wants or is likely to use. The fear that developers will lose control over their programs if distributed as Open Source is overwhelmed by the real benefit of having teams of programmers operate on the code. The original developer still owns the rights to the software and is in charge of accepting or denying proposed modifications.

None of this is mere conjecture. Real Open Source projects are making real success stories. Linux is, of course, one of Open Source's great masterpieces. The Internet is another. Without the cooperation of Open Source programmers, who have contributed the protocols and core programming that keeps the Internet alive, the Internet and World Wide Web would simply not exist. Many major Web sites are powered by the Open Source Apache Web server. Another good example is the multi-billion-dollar corporation, Netscape, which evolved from the Open Source Mosaic Web browser.

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