Citing the Philosophy of the GNU project:

Free "software" does not mean "noncommercial". A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important. You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.

Free software does not mean non-commercial software. So a software that can be shared for free can also be sold.

Why isn't this definition contradictory?

If I wanted, person A could take an open source project and sell it to some dummy person B that knows nothing about free-software. It seems that the definition above favors person A and somehow tricks person B, which unfortunately does not have the time to learn everything about free-software.

1 Answer 1


You have stumbled, like many others, across a basic ambiguity in English which does not exist in many other languages; the word free has more than one meaning. The important thing about free software is that it is free as in speech, not as in beer. That is, it is about freedom, not about zero-cost. Often it is zero-cost as well, but that is a side-effect, not a design requirement.

People who are free, are free to behave badly as well as to behave well, and you are right that nothing stops someone from selling free software to an unsuspecting person who has not bothered to educate themselves about their purchase before they make it. But commercial software can be sold to people who really shouldn't be buying it, as well; most of us have had to deal with software that was sold by an overenthusastic salesperson who perhaps didn't bother to tell the purchaser that his purchase wasn't really going to solve his problem.

Free software is designed to ensure that all its users have the freedoms to run their software for any purpose, to copy their software, to study and modify it to suit their particular purposes, and to distribute modified copies if they wish. It is not designed to solve all human ills, including dishonest salespeople and wilfully ignorant customers.

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    @OP Free software is defined by four specific freedoms in the page you've linked to. A license may impose any restrictions that do not contradict those freedoms and still qualify as free software. As for the paradox of imposing restrictions to preserve freedom, this is similar in practice to the Incompleteness Theorem: any set of freedoms must either be incomplete or include the freedom to become less free. Godel may have considered this philosophical issue as applied to the U.S. Constitution: io9.gizmodo.com/…
    – apsillers
    Mar 6, 2017 at 16:57
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    @OP Others have put it better than I could, but since you asked: when you are granted a set of freedoms, restricting your ability to take those same freedoms away from others in no way diminishes the freedoms you have been granted, and is arguably no bad thing. As has been said, "extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice".
    – MadHatter
    Mar 6, 2017 at 17:03
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    @apsillers that's a fascinating aside on Godel, thank you so much!
    – MadHatter
    Mar 6, 2017 at 17:07
  • @apsillers Also reminds me of the "paradox of tolerance": in order to have a tolerant society, you must not tolerate intolerance. Jun 24, 2020 at 10:53

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