Software license theory is a pretty dry topic -- we admit that. But it is also a critically important topic because chances are that your business would stop working if your computers stopped working, and by clicking "I agree" when installing software you are literally entering into a contract with a software vendor. We're going to introduce you to some radical new concepts here, and if you read through this page we think you'll be glad you did.
Linux and most programs which run on GNU/Linux are licensed under a software license developed by the Free Software Foundation called the General Public License (GPL), also known as the copyleft license.
GNU/Linux also has software programs which have traditional software licenses -- the "pay per seat" or "pay for each copy" type of software licenses (so you have a maximum amount of choice) -- but most software available for GNU/Linux is free software licensed under the GPL and other non-restrictive software licenses.
A software license outlines the terms under which you can use computer software. Make no mistake about it, GPL'ed computer software is copyrighted -- it has the full force of law and international copyright agreements behind it.
But GPL'ed software turns the restrictive ideas of copyright on their head! For example, with GPL'ed software it is perfectly legal (in fact, encouraged) for you to give the software to your friends and colleagues. You can sell or resell GPL'ed software. And since GPL'ed software comes with the full "source code" (the actual computer language code that programmers write to create the programs we run), you can even modify -- or pay to have someone else modify -- GPL'ed software to fit your own needs better.
There are two main restrictions to GPL'ed software:
(1) You cannot remove the copyright notice or change the software license.
(2) If you modify GPL'ed software and then redistribute the modified software (i.e. by selling it or even giving it away), then you must also share your modifications and license them under the GPL. This guarantees the future freedom of GPL'ed software. This idea allows others to use your modifications and to build upon your work. This sharing also is what creates the lightning-fast development times of free GPL software. (Of course, you are free to keep your custom modifications secret as long as you do not redistribute them in any way.)
Imagine what this can do for your business or organization! First, you can significantly lower software costs. You don't have to worry about fines and being guilty of software piracy -- there's no such thing with GPL'ed software. Since you have the source code to your computer programs, you can never be "locked into" a single vendor; your data can never be locked up in a secret file format forcing you to continue to buy updates to software just to have access to your data. And, since you have the source code, you can hire programmers to modify a program (adding or reducing features) to your own liking (sure, few small organizations do that, but it is certainly possible).
In other words, GPL'ed software is business-friendly software. It puts the freedom of how to use software into your hands! You decide on how software can best fit your business needs, and you simply use GPL'ed software that way. Though this is simple common sense, this is a radical departure from typical software licensing!
To make sure we drive this point home, let's compare free GPL software to the type of software license used by most businesses, Microsoft's restrictive license agreements. This can be done by asking a you few questions:
One cannot call restrictions like those in the above questions to be business friendly. Those restrictions are Microsoft-business-friendly, for sure, but they certainly are not friendly to your business!
When examining the types of restrictions found in traditional commercial software, the need for free software and open and free file formats stands out and screams at you. And thanks to the group of computer researchers that formed the Free Software Foundation and who created the GPL, the problem is solved.
The free software licensed under the GPL is truly business-friendly software.
Now with the arrival of GNU/Linux systems we have a user-friendly, freedom-embracing solution to the needs of businesses like yours. (And don't worry, GNU/Linux systems will handle those secret Microsoft Office file formats quite well, so you'll still be able to communicate with the people who are not enjoying business-friendly software.)