What is FOSS, and how does it differ from Freeware

Let's guide you in understanding what is FOSS, how it differs from freeware and is Linux a FOSS.

The rise of the Linux operating system, in all its various distributions, over the past few decades has catapulted the popularity of Free and Open Source Software.

Unfortunately, many new Linux users are often confused about what exactly FOSS is, and all that it entails. There’s no shame in that, and it can be confusing.

What is FOSS?

In simple terms, FOSS is software that all allows users to not only freely run the program for any purpose, but also provides users access to the code. Moreover, it also allows them to modify as they wish, as well as freely distribute copies of the original version or their altered version.

History of FOSS

FOSS is likely older than most people reading this now. As a concept, it has been around since the 1950s.  Back then, when companies bought hardware, the specialized bundled software that ran on that purchased hardware was free.  For this reason, a standard practice at the time was to allow hardware customers to modify that code as they saw fit.  Since the hardware was abnormally expensive during this period, these customers were primarily researchers and academicians.

The term was not exactly the same used for the software back then. Instead, it was commonly referred to as public domain software.  Today FOSS and public domain software are quite different.  FOSS is free, but also licensed, with terms and conditions on how it can be used contained in that license.  Public domain software has no license and may be used, modified, and distributed freely with absolutely no restrictions, and the creator retains no rights to their creation.

“Proprietary software is an injustice.” – Richard Stallman

In 1985, Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support the Free Software Movement.  FSF’s commitment was to Free Software.  That is software that users were free to use, modify, study, and share.

Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985

One year later, FOSS, as we now know it, came into being based on four freedoms:

  • The freedom to use the program for any purpose
  • Access to the source code
  • Freedom to learn how the program works and modify it
  • Freedom to redistribute copies
  • The freedom to distribute copied of your modified versions

Linux and FOSS

We now assume Linux is FOSS by default. Still, even though open-source was six years old when Linus Torvalds released the original Linux kernel in 1991, it was released as freely modifiable source code, but not considered opensource as there was no free software license.

Linux was not considered FOSS until a year later, when Torvalds re-licensed the project under the GNU GPL (General Public License).

“Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s _my_ choice, dammit.” – Linus Torvalds

Even now, many Linux users don’t realize that not all Linux distros are not FOSS.  Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), for example, is not FOSS. Red Hat employees strict trademark rules to restrict the free distribution of RHEL.  However, it still freely provides the RHEL source code.  A good rule of thumb when determining if a Linux distro is FOSS or not is whether you had to pay for it. If you paid for it, then chances are it’s not FOSS.

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds made Linux open source in 1992, one year after its creation

The Difference Between FOSS and Freeware

Users often confuse FOSS with freeware, too.  Such is not the case.  Freeware is merely software that you can use free of charge.  Unless otherwise stated modification, improvements, or redistribution of freeware cannot occur without explicit permission from the author of that software.

Skype and Adobe Acrobat are two examples of freeware.  You’re more than welcome to use them for free, but you’ll never see (or modify) the source code.

Whereas with FOSS, as stated above, source code is freely available, and the software is not only free to use, but users can also modify the source code and redistribute as they see fit.


FOSS, as we now know it, is a far cry from its infancy in the 1950s.  The advent and popularity of Linux over the past few decades have undoubtedly aided in that maturity.  Indeed, FOSS and Linux are so inexorably intertwined, one would exist today if not for the other.

Even Microsoft, a company once so hostile towards FOSS that Microsoft founder Bill Gates not so long ago complained that open source creates a license “so that nobody can ever improve the software,” has since embraced FOSS.  Earlier this year, however, the software giant open-sourced over 60,000 of its projects, including VS Code, MS-DOS, and PowerShell.

Yes, FOSS has come quite a long way in just a few short decades.  The future FOSS faces are as wrought with challenges as it is fertile with opportunities.  I look forward to seeing the state of FOSS on the eve of 2029.

Travis Rose
Hi, I'm M Travis Rose, a contributor to FOSS Linux. I have over thirty years of experience in the IT arena, at least fifteen of which has been working with Linux. I enjoy converting existing Windows users to the wonderful world of Linux. I guess you could call me a Linux-evangelist. Long live Linux!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here





Buyers who wish to go for a machine that is based on Linux often show interest in Chromebooks due to the form factor and extended battery life capabilities. Although ChromeOS power these machines, users can still miss out on a more genuine Linux experience. For those who happen to agree, the new Lemur Pro by System76 might get some heads turning.
Linux is growing faster than ever. As per the latest report, there is a drop in the Windows 10 market share for the first time, and Linux's market share has improved to 2.87% this month. Most of the features in the list were rolled out in the Pop OS 20.04. Let's a detailed look into the new features, how to upgrade, and a ride through video.

What’s New in Ubuntu 20.04 LTS “Focal Fossa”

Ubuntu 20.04 LTS is out now! This is the successor to Ubuntu 18.04, which was released in April 2018 and still has three years of official support left. Code-named Focal Fossa, the new edition has all the bells and whistles included in it, making it one of the best Ubuntu releases yet. Let's find out more.

5 Best Download Managers for Linux

We often need to download large files that can go corrupt due to various reasons such as slow internet or interrupted download. Using a broken downloaded file is not something one wants. Download managers make sure that the downloaded file maintains its integrity and also presents you with the ability to pause and resume downloads, provided the server supports it. When you are downloading a massive file, it's recommended to use a download manager.

7 Best Ways to Kill Unresponsive Programs in Linux

For dealing with a frozen app or desktop, you can't use the CTRL+ALT+DEL in Linux system. Instead, there are powerful alternatives that come in handy in frustrating situations. We pick the best methods available for you.

Best Laptops for Linux and Apps Development [2020]

Apart from your programming skills, there are a few other things that can also influence the way you code, and one of them is your computer system for sure. Even though it isn't like you can't code on a regular PC or laptop, speaking from personal experience, you can make the most out of your programming skillset by going for a computer with high specs and one that's been specially designed for such tasks.