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Free software

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Free software is software which can be used, copied, redistributed, and whose source code can be viewed, modified, and also redistributed.

(See also: Free software projects harmed by software patents)

"Free software" is not a subtopic of software patents. Development and distribution of all types of software carry the risk of patent infringement. The reason these two topics often appear together is that, firstly, the free software community is very active and vocal in campaigning against software patents, and secondly, software patents threaten a general freedom that free software users value: the freedom to participate in software development.

The term open source is a near-synonym. Patents affect the freedom that users and developers have when dealing with software. Patents don't affect "openness", so en.swpat.org will use the term "free software".


Why free software groups should be involved

The free software movement says that everyone should be allowed to modify and redistribute the software they use. Software patents interfere with this because they can add legal risks and costs to software development and distribution.

How patents affect free software

Advantages of FS faced with patents

  • The development models are more distributed, so there's often no single big company behind a software package. This means there are fewer tempting targets for patent trolls
  • If a patent holder makes a threat, anyone can remove that one feature from free software packages. The patent holder could still sue for past damages, but could not force the package to be entirely removed from the market, and the continued use of that patented idea is a decision that can be made by the users, not by making a deal with a single distributor.
  • Distributing source code (which is possible for free software) carries less patent risk than distributing executable binaries, according to SFLC, since "source code, like the patent disclosures themselves, teaches how the invention works, rather than being the invention [...and...] courts may find source code to be speech".[1]

Disadvantages of FS faced with patents

  • Many patent licensing agreements are structured in a way that excludes free software. If there is a per-copy fee, even if the amount is minuscule, there's no way to comply with this requirement because distributors can't know how many copies the users will make.

Patent promises in 2005

IBM promised, for 500 of its patents, not to use them against free software.[2]

Sun[3] and Nokia[4] subsequently made promises that were so narrow in scope, they were qualified as "empty" and "next to nothing", respectively, by Richard Stallman.[5]

Related pages on en.swpat.org

External links

Pages from GNU/Linux distributions


  1. http://softwarefreedom.org/resources/2011/debian-patent-policy-faq.html
  2. http://news.zdnet.com/2100-3513_22-140650.html
  3. http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9593_22-141018.html
  4. http://news.zdnet.com/2100-3513_22-142967.html
  5. http://www.linux.com/archive/feature/45271

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