The free software movement can be traced back to Richard Stallman who, in 1983, announced the GNU Project. “GNU” (pronounced with a hard “g”, like “guh-NOO”) is a recursive acronym for “GNU’s not Unix”; Unix was a family of proprietary computer operating systems developed by various companies, and Stallman’s aim was to create an alternative operating system that was free of any proprietary or commercial restrictions. Stallman had observed that free software fostered cooperation and collaboration among users, leading to improvements and innovation. However, by 1980, virtually all software was proprietary, which prevented collaboration. Stallman’s goal was for people to be able to use a computer in any way they wished, without any proprietary software. Since the operating system of a computer is the core base on which all other software runs, the first goal of the GNU movement was to build a completely free operating system. This was finally realized with the release of Linux in 1991, although the GNU software project comprises a much wider range of software than just the Linux OS.
In Stallman’s framing, free software meets the following criteria: “The freedom to run the program as you wish; the freedom to copy the program and give it away to your friends and co-workers; the freedom to change the program as you wish, by having full access to source code; the freedom to distribute an improved version and thus help build the community.” https://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-history.html.
You may have also heard the term open source to refer to software. The open source movement is closely related to the free software movement, but distinct in important ways. Indeed, there are distinct non-profit organizations around which each movement is centred. The Free Software Foundation sponsors the GNU Project, and it’s mission statement is, “…working to secure freedom for computer users by promoting the development and use of free (as in freedom) software and documentation—particularly the GNU operating system—and by campaigning against threats to computer user freedom like Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and software patents” https://www.fsf.org/about/; retrieved June 15, 2020. The separate Open Source Initiative is, “a non-profit corporation with global scope formed to educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source and to build bridges among different constituencies in the open source community.” https://opensource.org/about; retrieved June 15, 2020. Thus free software can be seen as having a stronger ideological stance, based on the principle of liberty (or even libertarianism).