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<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//IETF//DTD HTML 2.0//EN">
<TITLE>Categories of Free and Non-Free Software - GNU Project - Free Software
<LINK REV="made" HREF="mailto:address@hidden">
<BODY BGCOLOR="#FFFFFF" TEXT="#000000" LINK="#1F00FF" ALINK="#FF0000"
<H3>Categories of Free and Non-Free Software</H3>
ALT=" [image of a Philosophical Gnu] "
<!-- Please keep this list alphabetical -->
[ <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.ca.html">Catalan</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.html">English</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.fr.html">French</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.de.html">German</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.id.html">Indonesian</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.it.html">Italian</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.ja.html">Japanese</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.pl.html">Polish</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.ru.html">Russian</A>
| <A HREF="/philosophy/categories.es.html">Spanish</A>
Here is a glossary of various categories of software that are often
mentioned in discussions of free software. It explains which
categories overlap or are part of other categories.
<A HREF="/philosophy/philosophy.html">Other Texts to Read</A>
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#FreeSoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#OpenSource"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#PublicDomainSoftware"
NAME="TOCPublicDomainSoftware">Public domain software</A>''
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#CopyleftedSoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#Non-CopyleftedFreeSoftware"
NAME="TOCNon-CopyleftedFreeSoftware">Non-copylefted free software</A>''
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#GPL-CoveredSoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#TheGNUsystem"
NAME="TOCTheGNUsystem">The GNU system</A>''
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#GNUprograms"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#GNUsoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#semi-freeSoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#ProprietarySoftware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#shareware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#freeware"
| ``<A HREF="categories.html#commercialSoftware"
| <A HREF="/philosophy/philosophy.html">Other Texts to Read</A>
Words which You Might Want to Avoid</A>.
ALT=" [diagram of a the different categories of software] ">
This <a name="diagram">diagram</a> by Chao-Kuei
explains the different categories of software.
It's available as an <a href="/philosophy/category.fig">XFig file</a>,
as a <a href="/philosophy/category.jpg">JPEG picture (23k)</a> and as a
1.5 magnified <a href="/philosophy/category.png">PNG image (7k)</a>.
Free software is software that comes with permission for anyone
to use, copy, and distribute, either verbatim or with
modifications, either gratis or for a fee. In particular, this
means that source code must be available. ``If it's not source,
it's not software.'' This is a simplified definition; see also
the <A HREF="/philosophy/free-sw.html">full definition</A>.
We also have a list of
of the term "free software"</A>
into various other languages.
If a program is free, then it can potentially be included in a
free operating system such as GNU, or free versions of the
<A HREF="/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html">GNU/Linux system</A>.
There are many different ways to make a program free---many questions
of detail, which could be decided in more than one way and still make
the program free. Some of the possible variations are described
Free software is a matter of freedom, not price. But proprietary
software companies sometimes use the term ``free software'' to refer
to price. Sometimes they mean that you can obtain a binary copy at no
charge; sometimes they mean that a copy is included on a computer that
you are buying. This has nothing to do with what we mean by free
software in the GNU project.
Because of this potential confusion, when a software company says its
product is free software, always check the actual distribution terms
to see whether users really have all the freedoms that free software
implies. Sometimes it really is free software; sometimes it isn't.
Many languages have two separate words for ``free'' as in freedom and
``free'' as in zero price. For example, French has ``libre'' and
``gratuit''. English has a word ``gratis'' that refers unambiguously
to price, but no common adjective that refers unambiguously to
freedom. This is unfortunate, because such a word would be useful
Free software is often <A HREF="/software/reliability.html">more
reliable</A> than non-free software.
NAME="OpenSource"><STRONG>Open Source software</STRONG></A>
The term ``open source'' software is used by some people to mean
more or less the same thing as free software.
We prefer the term
software</A>''; follow that link to see the reasons.
NAME="PublicDomainSoftware"><STRONG>Public domain software</STRONG></A>
Public domain software is software that is not copyrighted.
It is a special case of
which means that some copies or modified versions may not be free at all.
Sometimes people use the term ``public domain'' in a loose fashion to
mean <A HREF="categories.html#FreeSoftware">``free''</A> or
``available gratis.'' However, ``public domain'' is a legal term and
means, precisely, ``not copyrighted''. For clarity, we recommend
using ``public domain'' for that meaning only, and using other terms
to convey the other meanings.
Copylefted software is free software whose distribution terms do not
let redistributors add any additional restrictions when they
redistribute or modify the software. This means that every copy of
the software, even if it has been modified, must be free software.
In the GNU Project, we copyleft almost all the software we write,
because our goal is to give <em>every</em> user the freedoms implied
by the term ``free software.'' See
<A HREF="/copyleft/copyleft.html">Copylefted</A> for more explanation
of how copyleft works and why we use it.
Copyleft is a general concept; to actually copyleft a program, you
need to use a specific set of distribution terms. There are many
possible ways to write copyleft distribution terms.
Non-copylefted free software comes from the author with permission to
redistribute and modify, and also to add additional restrictions to it.
If a program is free but not copylefted, then some copies or modified
versions may not be free at all. A software company can compile the
program, with or without modifications, and distribute the executable
file as a <A HREF="categories.html#ProprietarySoftware">proprietary</A>
The <A HREF="http://www.x.org">X Window System</A> illustrates
this. The X Consortium releases X11 with distribution terms that
make it non-copylefted free software. If you wish, you can get a
copy which has those distribution terms and is free. However,
there are non-free versions as well, and there are popular
workstations and PC graphics boards for which non-free versions
are the only ones that work. If you are using this hardware, X11
is not free software for you.
The <A HREF="/copyleft/gpl.html">GNU GPL (General Public
License) (20k characters)</A>
is one specific set of distribution terms for copylefting a program.
The GNU Project uses it as the distribution terms for most GNU software.
NAME="TheGNUsystem"><STRONG>The GNU system</STRONG></A>
The <A HREF="/gnu/gnu-history.html">GNU system</A> is a complete free
Unix-like operating system.
A Unix-like operating system consists of many programs. The GNU
system includes all the GNU software, as well as many other
packages such as the X Window System and TeX which are not GNU
We have been developing and accumulating components for the GNU
system since 1984; the first test release of a ``complete GNU
system'' was in 1996. Today, in 2001, the system is working
reliably, and people are working on making GNOME and ppp work in
it. In the mean time, the
<A HREF="/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html">GNU/Linux system</A>,
an offshoot of the GNU system which uses Linux as the kernel, has
become a great success.
Since the purpose of GNU is to be free, every single component in the
GNU system has to be free software. They don't all have to be
copylefted, however; any kind of free software is legally suitable to
include if it helps meet technical goals. We can and do use
non-copylefted free software such as the X Window System.
``GNU programs'' is equivalent to <A HREF="categories.html#GNUsoftware">
A program Foo is a GNU program if it is GNU software.
<A HREF="/software/software.html">GNU software</A> is software that is
released under the auspices of the
<A HREF="/gnu/gnu-history.html">GNU Project</A>. Most GNU software is
<A HREF="/copyleft/copyleft.html">copylefted</A>, but not all;
however, all GNU software must be
<A HREF="/philosophy/free-sw.html">free software</A>.
If a program is GNU software, we also say that it is a
Some GNU software is written by
<A HREF="/people/people.html">staff</A> of the
<A HREF="/fsf/fsf.html">Free Software Foundation</A>, but most GNU
software is contributed by
<A HREF="/people/people.html">volunteers</A>. Some contributed
software is copyrighted by the Free Software Foundation; some is
copyrighted by the contributors who wrote it.
Semi-free software is software that is not free, but comes with
permission for individuals to use, copy, distribute, and modify
(including distribution of modified versions) for non-profit purposes.
PGP is an example of a semi-free program.
Semi-free software is much better than
software</A>, but it still poses problems, and we cannot use it in a
free operating system.
The restrictions of copyleft are designed to protect the essential
freedoms for all users. For us, the only justification for any
substantive restriction on using a program is to prevent other people
from adding other restrictions. Semi-free programs have additional
restrictions, motivated by purely selfish goals.
It is impossible to include semi-free software in a free operating
system. This is because the distribution terms for the operating
system as a whole are the conjunction of the distribution terms for
all the programs in it. Adding one semi-free program to the system
would make the system <em>as a whole</em> just semi-free.
There are two reasons we do not want that to happen:
<LI>We believe that free software should be for everyone--including
businesses, not just schools and hobbyists. We want to invite
business to use the whole GNU system, and therefore we must not
include a semi-free program in it.
<LI>Commercial distribution of free operating systems, including
the <A HREF="/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html">GNU/Linux system</A>,
is very important, and users appreciate the convenience of
commercial CD-ROM distributions.
Including one semi-free program in an operating system
would cut off commercial CD-ROM distribution for it.
The Free Software Foundation itself is non-commercial, and therefore
we would be legally permitted to use a semi-free program
``internally''. But we don't do that, because that would undermine
our efforts to obtain a program which we could also include in GNU.
If there is a job that needs doing with software, then until we have a
free program to do the job, the GNU system has a gap. We have to tell
volunteers, ``We don't have a program yet to do this job in GNU, so we
hope you will write one.'' If we ourselves used a semi-free program
to do the job, that would undermine what we say; it would take away
the impetus (on us, and on others who might listen to our views) to
write a free replacement. So we don't do that.
Proprietary software is software that is not free or semi-free. Its
use, redistribution or modification is prohibited, or requires you to
ask for permission, or is restricted so much that you effectively
can't do it freely.
The Free Software Foundation follows the rule that we cannot install
any proprietary program on our computers except temporarily for the
specific purpose of writing a free replacement for that very program.
Aside from that, we feel there is no possible excuse for installing a
For example, we felt justified in installing Unix on our computer
in the 1980s, because we were using it to write a free
replacement for Unix. Nowadays, since free operating systems are
available, the excuse is no longer applicable; we have eliminated
all our non-free operating systems, and any new computer we
install must run a completely free operating system.
We don't insist that users of GNU, or contributors to GNU, have
to live by this rule. It is a rule we made for ourselves. But
we hope you will decide to follow it too.
The term ``freeware'' has no clear accepted definition,
but it is commonly used for packages which permit redistribution
but not modification (and their source code is not available).
These packages are <em>not</em> free software, so please don't
use ``freeware'' to refer to free software.
Shareware is software which comes with permission for people to
redistribute copies, but says that anyone who continues to use a copy
is <em>required</em> to pay a license fee.
Shareware is not free software, or even semi-free. There are two
reasons it is not:
<LI>For most shareware, source code is not available; thus, you cannot
modify the program at all.
<LI>Shareware does not come with permission to make a copy and
install it without paying a license fee, not even for
individuals engaging in nonprofit activity. (In practice,
people often disregard the distribution terms and do this
anyway, but the terms don't permit it.)
Commercial software is software being developed by a business
which aims to make money from the use of the software.
``Commercial'' and ``proprietary'' are not the same thing! Most
commercial software is
but there is commercial free software, and there is non-commercial
For example, GNU Ada is always distributed under the terms of
the GNU GPL, and every copy is free software; but its developers
sell support contracts. When their salesmen speak to prospective
customers, sometimes the customers say, ``We would feel safer
with a commercial compiler.'' The salesmen reply, ``GNU Ada
<em>is</em> a commercial compiler; it happens to be free
For the GNU Project, the emphasis is in the other order: the
important thing is that GNU Ada is free software; whether it is
commercial is not a crucial question. However, the additional
development of GNU Ada that results from its being commercial
it is definitely beneficial.
Please help spread the awareness that commercial free software
is possible. You can do this by making an effort not to
say ``commercial'' when you mean ``proprietary.''
<H4><A HREF="/philosophy/philosophy.html">Other Texts to Read</A></H4>
Return to <A HREF="/home.html">GNU's home page</A>.
FSF & GNU inquiries & questions to
Other <A HREF="/home.html#ContactInfo">ways to contact</A> the FSF.
Comments on these web pages to
send other questions to
Copyright (C) 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 Free Software Foundation, Inc.,
59 Temple Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is
permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.<P>
<!-- hhmts start -->
$Date: 2001/09/19 19:30:49 $ $Author: lmiguel $
<!-- hhmts end -->
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