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Netscape and Free Software

People have been writing with joy to tell us that Netscape has announced a plan to make its browser free software, under the GNU GPL.

That is getting a bit ahead of events. The announcement Netscape made does not actually say that they will use the GNU GPL, and does not assert that the program will be free software as we define it in our community. It's clear that Netscape will take a big step in the direction of free software, but we don't know whether they will get all the way there or fall substantially short. In fact, Netscape is still deciding what to do.

When they decide, two crucial questions will be whether people will be free to distribute copies for a fee (on free software CD-ROM collections, for example) and whether people will be free to redistribute modified versions just like the original version. If either of those freedoms is lacking, the program won't be free software.

If Netscape does release the Netscape browser as free software, that will be a great day for the free software movement. But rather than rejoicing or criticizing now, let's see what actually happens, and then we'll know whether to celebrate. What we can usefully do now is urge Netscape, calmly and politely, to make the software free, and to copyleft it with the GNU General Public License.

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 [FSF logo] “The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a nonprofit with a worldwide mission to promote computer user freedom. We defend the rights of all software users.”

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