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I often read that some distributions contain non-free components while some other are "free".

As an end-user, I don't understand very well the difference between free and non-free distributions.

What are the limitations of one compared to the other ?

When should I not use non-free distributions ?

As a reseller, can I sell an equipment with non-free software ? Can I sell an equipement with free software ?

Does it depend on local laws ?

Edit: I don't ask this question to receive any general opinion.

My question is asked to know how one should choose a license or type of distribution, not from

  • political nor
  • philosophical criterion

but from:

  • technical or
  • legal or
  • user experience concerns.

closed as primarily opinion-based by slm, jasonwryan, Anthon, Gilles, Bernhard Dec 13 '13 at 7:51

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • If are you asking those questions for having general opinion, general opinion is what you will receive. – uprego Dec 12 '13 at 14:54
  • Each distro has it's own criteria for "free" and "non-free". See debian.org/legal/licenses or fedoraproject.org/wiki/Licensing:Main?rd=Licensing and of course fsfla.org/ikiwiki/about/what-is-free-software.en.html =) – Panther Dec 12 '13 at 16:04
  • As a reseller, can I sell an equipment with non-free software ? Can I sell an equipement with free software? -- You should check the specific licenses. Free software is by definition re-distributable, but it must be redistributed as free software. This does not mean "free as in beer"; you may charge money for it, but you must abide by the terms of the license. Trade agreements generally mean that most countries have enforceable laws regarding software licences; if you violate the license on my software in Sweden, I can sue you in a Swedish court. – goldilocks Dec 12 '13 at 17:16
  • But if I use a distro in something like an equipment (let us say a camera with an integrated linux to transmit data on the internet), should I be careful if it is non-free ? Should I pay the non-free software licenses prior to resell them ? – lauhub Dec 12 '13 at 18:32
  • I can see that IT people are as much blind as twenty years ago ("my own computer is better than yours because I bought it". Please grow up!). Apparently they read what they want to read and not what is written: my first post (before edit) did not ask for any opinion but facts (what, when, how, where). As my edit tells I don't want "primarily opinion-based" answers. But now my question is closed. Why ? – lauhub Dec 16 '13 at 12:40
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WRT to distributions, the essential difference between "free" and "non-free" is that the former is compiled from freely available source code, whereas the later is not; this usually means that the distribution packagers did not compile the binary at all -- they got it from some third party who have legal, private possession of the source code. For example, proprietary video drivers are distributed in binary form by device manufacturers; the source code is not public and thus, "non-free".1

I often read that some distributions contain non-free components while some other are "free".

I know that Fedora and Debian make it a policy not to include any non-free parts in their base distribution and default repositories, but they do have "non-free" repos that you can access. The only distro I know of that makes it a policy to have only free parts, period, is gNewSense [there are more -- see bodhi.zazen's comment].

Sometimes people will refer to the fact that virtually all commercially available computers run proprietary firmware (there are a very few exceptions) as evidence of the fact that virtually all computer systems are non-free on some level, but OS distributions are not really responsible for this -- in theory, they could perhaps develop free firmware and flash your equipment with that during installation, but virtually all people would not want this because of the risks involved (it could wreck hardware).

The reason for preferring free software is quality control; if the only people who can examine the source code are the people who wrote the source code, we have to take their word for it that it is done properly and does not include security loopholes, malicious components, or potentially dangerous errors. The reason for preferring non-free software is it's easier to monetize. In cases where no money is involved (such as with "non-free" linux repos) it is usually because hardware manufacturers claim to be protecting trade secrets in their drivers. In fact, it's probably not much protection in this context, and it could be argued that the real reason is a matter of (normative, old school corporate/capitalist) culture. That culture regards software as something that must be controlled, and freeing the source code problematizes control.


1 There's actually a little more to the concept of free software than just that the source code is open (publicly available). It must also be licensed such that it is freely modifiable, although such modified versions must also remain free.

  • the risk and the complexity of such a process – Kiwy Dec 12 '13 at 15:46
  • 1
    There are several completely open source distros "linux-libre". They release two versions, one based on Ubuntu (Trisquel), the other on Arch (Parabola). These two distros tend to be most up to date of the bunch (including gnewsense). All such distros lag a bit as the maintainers need to review the code. See - fsfla.org/ikiwiki/selibre/linux-libre , A complete list of free distros is gnu.org/distros/free-distros.html . Several of these distros are quite nice, but not all have regular releases. – Panther Dec 12 '13 at 16:01
  • Thanks for this clarification. What I understand is that the choice is more from a political (or legal) more than a technical point of view. Because I don't see myself examining the thousands of lines of codes of free drivers – lauhub Dec 12 '13 at 18:21
  • "Open source development" is considered a technical methodology in the field of software engineering, yes, although it has other aspects than the ones discussed here. Consider bug reporting for OSS projects: while you may not be able to correlate a bug you've found to source code, many people can, and (subject to review), this is how many patches and improvements work their way in. Generally, discussion and decision making amongst developers is also public -- the linux kernel is an excellent example of this. – goldilocks Dec 14 '13 at 13:27
  • If your primary concern is re-distribution, then obviously the legal aspects are more relevant to you. FOSS licences tend to be fairly straightforward in this sense: you can do whatever you want with the product including sell it for money but you cannot change the licencing regardless of how you use it. If you integrate some of the code into another product, that product must have a compatible FOSS licence and you must acknowledge your use. – goldilocks Dec 14 '13 at 13:31
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The answer is long, but one example can be the MP3.

In Europe you can provide an opensource way of reading mp3 while in USA it's a patent issue, and you cannot read mp3 with an open source product. a free distribution is free when it only use open source project that are law complaint with majority of country.
Some distribution wants to insure Nvidia support so they include the nvidia binary files hich ar not open source... for example.

Considering all the question you're asking I'd rather it depend of where you're living and what you want to do with your distribution.

  • It's a partial answer and any more thougt is indeed welcome. – Kiwy Dec 12 '13 at 14:44
  • Well, I live in Europe/France and my question is about why we can choose between free and non-free – lauhub Dec 12 '13 at 14:47
  • Allons enfant de la patrie ! ;) The reason you can choose is mainly about opinion and phylosophie, some people do not want to rely on proprietary code while some other accept a small amount of code. In professionnal world thougt it often happen that some network controler does need some proprietary binary to run. – Kiwy Dec 12 '13 at 14:51
  • ...le jour de gloire est arrivé ;) I also felt that political opinion may be involved in this, but my thoughts were that ease of use or technical or commercial limitations should come first – lauhub Dec 12 '13 at 18:16
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What are the limitations of one compared to the other ?

Each needs to be evaluated according to its own license.

When should I not use non-free distributions ?

When you can legally comply with the licensing.

As a reseller, can I sell an equipment with non-free software ? Can I sell an equipement with free software ?

If the license permits it, then yes. If it does not, then no.

If you want to avoid losing a law suit need to comply with all licenses.

As a reseller it is your responsibility to make sure that you are legally authorized to redistribute software you are redistributing. This very likely means you'll need qualified legal advice—something you won't get by asking on an Internet forum.

Does it depend on local laws ?

Maybe. Some licenses are legally enforceable, others are not. Whether they are or not will depend on whether they've been tested in court for which you are under jurisdiction, and likely only until relevant law is changed.

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