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Free Software vs. Open Source Software — What's the Difference?

Edited by Tayyaba Rehman — By Urooj Arif — Published on April 19, 2024
Free software focuses on users' freedom to use, modify, and share, emphasizing ethical aspects, while open source software highlights the practical benefits of collaborative development, allowing access to source code for enhancement and distribution.
Free Software vs. Open Source Software — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Free Software and Open Source Software


Key Differences

The term "open source" suggests a more collaborative approach to software development, where developers can contribute to improving the software's functionality, security, and stability. Free software concept is rooted in the belief that software should be free in the sense of freedom, not necessarily zero cost, supporting ethical usage and sharing.
While both free software and open source software provide users with access to the source code, the difference lies in their underlying philosophies. Free software is driven by ethical considerations, asserting that software freedom is a moral right. Open source, however, adopts a more utilitarian viewpoint, arguing that open collaboration leads to superior software products.
Free software licenses, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL), ensure that all modified and extended versions of the software remain free. Open source licenses, such as the Apache and MIT licenses, may allow for more permissive use, including incorporation into proprietary products, provided the original licenses' conditions are met.
In practice, many software projects and their associated communities overlap between free and open source due to shared goals of improving software accessibility and encouraging user participation. The choice between advocating for free software or open source software often comes down to whether one prioritizes the ethical implications of software freedom or the practical benefits of collaborative development.

Comparison Chart


Emphasizes ethical and moral rights to use, modify, and share software.
Focuses on the practical benefits of collaborative software development.

Main Objective

To guarantee users' freedom and community benefits.
To produce higher quality, more reliable, and more flexible software.

Key Principles

Freedom to run, study, modify, and distribute the software.
Open access to the source code for inspection, modification, and enhancement.


GNU General Public License (GPL) and others that ensure software freedom.
Apache, MIT, and others that may be more permissive towards commercial use.

Community Focus

Building a community that values sharing and collective progress.
Creating a collaborative environment for innovation and efficiency.

Example Software

GNU/Linux, LibreOffice
Apache Web Server, Mozilla Firefox

Compare with Definitions

Free Software

Aims for collective improvement and accessibility.
GIMP provides powerful image editing capabilities freely to users and developers alike.

Open Source Software

Allows open access to source code for improvement.
Apache Web Server showcases how open source can lead to dominant software.

Free Software

Rooted in moral and ethical considerations.
The GNU project exemplifies the free software movement's commitment to software freedom.

Open Source Software

Promotes collaborative development and innovation.
Mozilla Firefox has benefited from global contributions to its codebase.

Free Software

Often associated with the GNU General Public License (GPL).
Software under GPL ensures its derivatives also remain free.

Open Source Software

Focuses on practical benefits like reliability and flexibility.
The Android OS demonstrates the strength of open source in mobile platforms.

Free Software

Software that users are free to run, modify, and distribute.
GNU/Linux is widely used for its freedom and versatility.

Open Source Software

May include permissive licenses like Apache or MIT.
TensorFlow utilizes an Apache 2.0 license, encouraging widespread adoption.

Free Software

Emphasizes ethical use and community sharing.
LibreOffice offers a free alternative to proprietary office suites, promoting user freedom.

Open Source Software

Encourages a community of developers and users.
GitHub hosts myriad open source projects, facilitating collaboration and sharing.

Common Curiosities

Is all open source software free?

While open source software is generally available at no cost, its definition focuses on access to the source code rather than the cost.

Can free software cost money?

Yes, free software can be sold for money as long as it maintains the users' freedoms to use, study, modify, and distribute it.

What is open source software?

Open source software is characterized by its open access to the source code, allowing anyone to inspect, modify, and enhance it for collaborative and practical benefits.

What kind of license is typical for free software?

The GNU General Public License (GPL) is a common choice, ensuring that all modified versions of the software also grant users these freedoms.

Why do some companies prefer open source software?

Companies may prefer open source for its cost-effectiveness, adaptability, and the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from collective advancements.

How do the philosophies of free software and open source differ?

Free software emphasizes the moral and ethical rights to software freedom, while open source highlights the practical advantages of collaborative development.

What are the benefits of using open source software?

Benefits include improved reliability, more flexibility, lower costs, and the collective intelligence of a collaborative development community.

What challenges do open source projects face?

Challenges include ensuring sustainable development, managing diverse contributions, securing funding, and maintaining code quality and security.

What is free software?

Free software refers to programs whose users have the freedom to run, study, modify, and distribute the software, focusing on ethical rights.

Can a software project be both free and open source?

Many software projects align with both free and open source principles, sharing the goal of making software more accessible and modifiable by users.

How do developers benefit from contributing to open source?

Developers gain experience, recognition, and professional opportunities by contributing to projects and engaging with the open source community.

What is the future of free and open source software?

The future looks promising as more individuals and organizations recognize the value of collaboration, transparency, and freedom in software development.

Are there restrictions on modifying open source software?

While open source software can be modified, certain licenses may impose conditions on how modifications are shared or integrated into other projects.

How can I tell if software is truly free or open source?

Reviewing the software's license can confirm its adherence to free or open source principles, ensuring it grants the required freedoms or access.

How does free software contribute to society?

It promotes digital freedom, encourages sharing and collaboration, and helps reduce reliance on proprietary software, fostering a more inclusive digital environment.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Urooj Arif
Urooj is a skilled content writer at Ask Difference, known for her exceptional ability to simplify complex topics into engaging and informative content. With a passion for research and a flair for clear, concise writing, she consistently delivers articles that resonate with our diverse audience.
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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