Free World Licence

Frequently Asked Questions

IMPORTANT: This FAQ does not constitute legal advice by Ross N. Williams or any other party, and accordingly it is not intended to be, nor should it be relied upon as, a substitute for legal or other professional advice in relation to The Free World Licence. Where there is a conflict between this FAQ and the licence itself, the text of the licence prevails.

Q: Who's in charge here?

A: The Free World Licence was written by Ross Williams (me) in late 1999 and released in August 2000. I hold copyright in the licence and will manage the release of future versions if the licence needs updating.

Q: Why create ANOTHER free software licence?

A: Good question! There are now so many free software licences available that anyone who needs a licence should ask themselves whether an existing licence can serve their purpose before creating a new licence. I created the Free World Licence because I wanted to contribute a version of my commercial data integrity product Veracity to the free software community as FreeVeracity without destroying the existing commercial-platform revenue stream, and no existing licence provided a restriction to free platforms only. A second reason was that I wanted to tailor the licence to my exact requirements. However, subject to the constraints of this framework, I have done my best to make the licence as general as possible so that it can be used by other persons and organizations.

Q: Why is it called "The Free World Licence"?

A: Western countries refer to the collection of democratic states as the "Free World", with other states (consisting of dictatorships and other non-democratic forms of governance) being viewed as non-free. In software, a similar dichotomy exists, with free and proprietary software forming two separate worlds, each with its own ideology and culture. I find it amusing to adopt a slightly overloaded political terminology and refer to the free software world as the "Free World". In this view, Bill Gates is the leader of the proprietary world, and Richard Stallman is the leader of the free world :-) These two worlds are largely identified by platform; those who identify with the proprietary world tend to run proprietary operating systems, and those who identify with the free world tend to run free operating systems. As this licence allows its software to be run only on free operating systems, it thereby allows its software to be run throughout the "free world". Hence "The Free World Licence".

Q: Which platforms are "free platforms"?

A: The exact definition of a free platform appears in Clause 1.4 of The Free World Licence. However, as an informal non-exhaustive categorization, the following platforms are free: GNU/Linux (often called just "Linux"), FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, GNU/HURD, MINIX and FreeDOS. The following platforms are NOT free: MS-DOS, Windows95, Windows98, WindowsNT, Windows2000, MacOS, AIX, IRIX, Tru64 Unix, SunOS, Solaris, OpenVMS, HP-UX, BSD/OS, and Plan 9.

Q: My platform isn't listed in the list in the previous question's answer! So how do I know if it's free?

A: To see whether your platform is classified as a "Free Platform", refer to Clause 1.4 of the licence itself and see if your platform satisfies the conditions for a free platform. An important aspect of The Free World Licence is that it defines free platforms by their properties rather than by their identities. This means that software that is released today under the Free World Licence may be ported to new free platforms that arise tomorrow. It also allows non-free platforms that become  free to be classified as free platforms.

Q: Why is Plan 9 not a free platform?

A: Plan 9 is not classified as a free platform under The Free World Licence because clause 6.0.1 of the Plan 9 License terminates the licence if the licensee initiates any intellectual property action against the original licensor. As this termination clause is triggered on conditions not solely related to the licensee's behaviour in relation to the platform's software, it breaches the definition in clause 1.4(g) of The Free World Licence. Example: Lucent creates a new company whose name infringes your company's trademarked name, so you sue Lucent, and this triggers clause 6.0.1 of the Plan 9 licence which terminates the licence.

Q: What about software emulators?

A: If the emulator software satisfies the conditions for "free" under the licence, then it does not prevent the platform from being classified as free. However, if the emulator is non-free, then the platform becomes non-free. For example, if you are running GNU/Linux on top of a virtual PC created by VMware (a non-free PC emulator) than the GNU/Linux does not count as a free platform. If you reboot and run GNU/Linux directly on the hardware, then that is a free platform. If you run GNU/Linux on top of a virtual PC created by Bochs (an free (LGPL) emulator) on top of the raw hardware, then that counts as a free platform.

Q: Can I distribute software released under a Free World Licence using computers running non-free operating systems?

A: Yes. The Free World Licence restricts the creation of executables capable of running on non-free platforms, and the actual running on non-free platforms, but does not restrict the use of non-free platforms to propagate the software (e.g. in their capacity as FTP servers). You are free to copy software released under a Free World Licence onto your non-free platform, but you must not compile or run it.

Q: Is this an "Open Source" licence?

A: No. Because the Free World Licence permits use on free platforms only, it does not satisfy the requirements for use of the term "Open Source" as informally defined by the website Consequently, the Free World Licence should not be referred to as an "Open Source" licence, and software released under it should not be referred to as "Open Source". However, it's important to realise that the Free World Licence provides all the usual free software freedoms such as the ability to modify the software and distribute modifications free of charge. It's sole major restriction is on the ability to use the software on non-free platforms.

Q: Why should I release my software under this licence?

A: This is a question with several complicated answers and this answer is necessarily a simplification. If you are a proprietary software vendor who is currently deriving revenue from sales for proprietary platforms, the Free World Licence provides the opportunity to experiment with free software business models without damaging your existing business. If you have an altruistic streak, it also provides a way of contributing to the free software community without damaging your existing business. If you are a free software and/or GNU/Linux advocate, releasing your software under a Free World Licence provides a way to make your software fully available to the free world, without enhancing the functionality of proprietary platforms.

Q: If I release my software under a Free World Licence, will I benefit from enhancements made to the software by free software hackers?

A: Partly. Experience demonstrates that hackers do not like to contribute to code that is being sold under commercial proprietary terms, even if the code is, in some sense, also free. For this reason, the Free World Licence does not allow enhancements made by contributors to the free version of a product to flow into the commercial proprietary version. Thus, if you release your commercial product under a Free World Licence, you do run the risk of a source fork taking place. Whether a fork does take place depends on the exact situation. An exception to this "Chinese Wall" arrangement are minor bugfixes and other minor enhancements, which may flow freely into the commercial version. This compromise serves all parties well because it provides the commercial vendor with the benefits of the "many eyeballs" debugging effect, while protecting hackers who contribute significant enhancements to the free version from having their work sold under proprietary terms. All this merely describes the default restrictions provided by the licence; if a contributor makes a particularly useful enhancement to the free version, the contributor may make a deal with the commercial vendor to allow the enhancement to be included in the commercial version.

Q: If I release my software under The Free World Licence, can I relax the platform restriction later?

A: Yes. The Free World Licence contains a clause (Clause 5.9) that explicitly allows the platform restriction to be relaxed by the Original Licensor, even if the software has been substantially modified by third parties since its original release. This means that if you are uncertain about whether you need the platform restriction, you can try it and convert at some later date if you find that it is unnecessary.

Q: If I release my software under The Free World Licence, can I convert to the GNU GPL later?

A: Yes. The Free World Licence contains a clause (Clause 5.10) that explicitly allows the software to be converted to a GNU GPL even if the software has been substantially modified by third parties since its original release. This means that if you are uncertain about whether you need the platform restriction, you can try it and still reserve the right to convert to the GNU GPL at some later date.

Q: Can I mix code released under The Free World Licence with code released under other licences?

A: No. Like the GNU GPL, the Free World Licence specifies exact conditions for its distribution of the software. These are, almost by definition, incompatible with the terms of all other licences.

Q: Is it legally "safe" to release software under The Free World Licence?

A: I cannot provide a formal statement on the legal safety of this licence. However, the Free World Licence contains No-Warranty (Clause 6.1) and No-Liability (Clause 6.2) clauses that are as strong as those of the GNU GPL. Furthermore, these clauses are more strongly enforced because the Free World Licence forms a contract between the software's originator and user that invokes the no-warranty and no-liability clauses with contractual strength. In contrast, the GNU GPL does not create a contract between the originator and the non-distributing end-user, which means that its no-warranty and no-liability clauses have the status of warnings rather than of contractually binding clauses. All this suggests that the Free World Licence provides a higher level of legal safety than the GNU GPL. This said, The Free World Licence is a new licence and it may contain significant unforseen legal problems, whereas the GNU GPL is a well "burnt-in" licence.

Q: If I release my software under a Free World Licence, could this result in a dozen different free variants arising?

A: Yes; this is a possibility, as the Free World Licence allows people to create and distribute variants. It is, after all, a free software licence. However, the licence does provide some control over the NAME of variants (Clause 5.6) that means that your official free version will remain readily identifiable.

Q: My software IS an operating system! :-)

A: Um. OK, well I guess if you release your software under The Free World Licence than your OS's software "platform" is the empty set, and so you might as well release your software under a non-platform-restricted free software licence.

Q: What if free platforms increase their market share until they take over the operating systems market? Then I won't have anything left to sell!

A: This is an important point and one that deserves to be thoroughly addressed. It is true that if free operating systems take over and you have released your software under a Free World Licence, then you will have nothing to sell. However, there are some strong arguments why release under The Free World Licence may still be a sound decision. First, even if free platforms do grow in market share, it will probably still be many years before they completely dominate the operating systems market. Your company can thrive on proprietary-platform sales until then. Second, if free platforms achieve dominance, it will imply that users who previously purchased proprietary platforms will have been "converted" and will already be trusting free operating systems in mission-critical roles. It follows that they will then also be comfortable trusting free applications software too. As free software usually displaces non-free software (all other factors constant), it is likely that your market will become dominated by free-software vendors, in which case it is better to be a vendor who converted to a free-software business model than one who got left high and dry as the proprietary-software waters receded. A strength of The Free World Licence is that it rescues the proprietary software vendor from the dilemma of deciding whether to adopt a proprietary-software or a free software business model, because it allows both to be run at the same time. If proprietary platforms flourish, the vendor collects licence fees. If free platforms flourish, the vendor has a head start in the market in converting to a free-software model business. Either way, the use of the Free World Licence reduces business-model risk. Note: These arguments apply for a lot of commercial software, but whether they apply to you depends on the exact nature of your software and your market.

Q: If I release my source code, my competitor might copy the code and include it in their (proprietary) product?

A: This is a realistic possibility. However, in order to copy your source code undetectably, your competitors will have to keep their product's source code an absolute secret, not even providing it under non-disclosure to their customers. This puts them at a significant disadvantage in a software market that is increasingly coming to value the availability of source code. Thus, what you lose in competitor-copying, you may more than gain back in the competitive advantage of providing source code when your competitor cannot.

Q: If I release source code, my competitors will see all my software engineering secrets and copy them in their own products!

A: If your product's competitive advantage is based on secret software architectures, mechanisms, algorithms, and optimizations, then the benefits of exposing the source code will not be made up for by the loss of competitive advantage. Whether your engineering secrets are critical depends on the exact nature of your product, but I think it's safe to say that the majority of software products have nothing to hide! :-)

Q: If I release source code, my customers will create illegal copies of my product!

A: The publication of source code will usually have no effect on illegal copying because source code is FAR more cumbersome than executable code!! If you were an end-user, would you rather obtain an executable that can be run on your platform, or one thousand text files containing one million lines of C code that has to be compiled? Clearly, the end-user would far prefer a small, ready-to-run executable. Executables are extremely easy to copy nowadays because it is now quite easy and acceptable to attach (say) a two megabyte executable to an email message. Thus, releasing source code does not make it any easier for someone to copy your software. The only circumstance under which the release of source code is likely to affect the number of illegal copies is if your software product employs a sophisticated automated licensing system. In that case, release of source code will allow those who wish to "crack" the licensing system to do so.

Q: Why do you spell "Licence" with a C?

A: My Penguin English Dictionary states that the form "licence" is the noun (as in "I wrote a licence") and the form "license" is the verb (as in "I licensed the software"). In contrast, Americans appear to use the "License" form for both the noun and the verb. I choose to use both spellings, as I am used to the spelling "licence" for the noun, and I think that the different spellings provide a very useful distinction between the noun and the verb.

Q: How does your licence legally stop people from running the software on a non-free platform, when copyright law covers only the copying, not the running of software?

A: The Free World Licence is not merely a conditional relaxation of the powers over copying granted to the author by copyright law. The Free World Licence forms a contract between the software originator and user and it is that contract that imposes the condition that the user not run the software on a non-free platform. As a backup, the copyright licensing parts of the Free World Licence prohibit the creation of derivative works capable of being run on a non-free platform (and not also a free platform).

If you have any other questions, please email me and I will answer them and add them to this list.

*  See a comprehensive list of free and non-free platforms.

*  Or visit the checklists for developers and distributors.

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