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Free software and the concept of freedom

A quick look at the etymology of words in Portuguese tells us that the word free derives from the Latin liber. Linguists theorize the word originally meant “nation/people,” and it may have been used to refer to “non-enslaved people,” as a means of protesting their enslavement.

The word free comes from the Latin gratis, meaning “something that was given freely, without waiting for reward or retribution.”

If you ask most people, they would say “free software” refers to gratuity, but, as we can see, freedom and gratuity are far from the same thing.

According to GNU, “Free Software” is a matter of freedom, not of price. To understand the concept, you must think of freedom in the sense of “freedom of expression,” not “gratuity.”

With free software, you have the freedom to access the source code, modify it, and make it available to other users. For GNU, the concept of freedom is based on the following points:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

That is, free software means the user has the freedom to change and execute the program as he or she wishes, they are free to use it in any kind of situation.

Therefore, when talking about free software it is good to avoid the term for free. Free software is not about price but about freedom. If you say that the program is “available as free software,” that’s correct!

GNU has created a list with the terms that can be used when referring to free software and you can consult it.

Note: This text was originally written in Portuguese, so the study of etymology refers to words in the Portuguese language of Brazil.