Open source software is free and we all know that, do we not? It’s intriguing, but for a long period of time I have considered to blog on that subject since many have asked me over and over again what is this “free” supposed to mean and whether they can offer open source software against payment.
In order to answer their question, I first had to determine what “free” meant.
When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not to price.
This is what the Preamble of the GNU General Public License V3 says. Why GNU/GPL? Well, simply because it is estimated to cover at least 60% of all open source software, which makes it the most important and widespread license. So, following the GNU/GPL “free” is to demonstrate the freedom to access, modify and distribute software and not to necessarily express “for free” in the sense of, say, free beer.
Thus, GNU/GPL turns out to be the license that describes what “free” is supposed to mean and does it with disarming clarity. The other relevant open source licenses, such as MPL, EPL or Apache, tend to rely on the rather legal term “royalty-free”. And this brings us to the next point:
Free Vs Royalty-Free
In above licenses (and in copyright law in general), the term royalty-free means that once the software is licensed, the licensee is free to use and distribute it without owing additional royalty payments to licensor or distributor.
Nevertheless, this does not prevent the licensor or distributor from charging an initial fee for distributing or otherwise making the software available to a licensee. Besides, a fee is commonly justified with the provision of, inter alia, well-written documentation and professional support services. In fact, this represents the ground for various business models run by commercial undertakings such as Red Hat or Novell.
In all brevity, if you like to utilize a software under an open source license by charging something for it, you are just free to do it.
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