I'm a Windows IT professional with MCSE messaging certificate, and I'm not that familiar with Linux terms. Four months ago, I downloaded Fedora Linux and I worked on it with the help of the PDF provided by Red Hat. I really admire DNS, Apache, Samba and other open source features and apps, but I have a very basic question. I always hear that Linux is free. However, when you browse Red Hat's site you will see a price range from $140 to $1,500. I know that this pricing is for a corporate ditribution, but I want to know what is exactly free about Linux. For example, can I put Fedora on the network to serve my client for free? I'm not able to understand the pricing and licensing terms. Could you explain this for me, please?

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The term "free" is somewhat misleading, indeed, and refers to the GNU Public License. The "free" part stands for "free, as in freedom" and not for "free, as in beer." So what is important are the liberties that you have when applying the software, because you can modify the GPL-licensed source code, as long as you stick to the terms in the license. For more information on the philosophy you can read this article, where the Free Software Foundation explains their vision.

The pricing is a different story. If you make a Linux distribution (such as the one produced by Red Hat), you are free to charge for the software -- and in many cases you'll see that professional (high-priced) distributions deliver some additional tools, offer support and updates or have better integration with other platforms. Having said that, you ought to compare the offerings, because there are many free (as in beer) distributions available that might perfectly suit your needs. So pricing can actually start at $0.

Editor's note: You may also be interested in reading this expert response about the difference between open source and open standards.

This was first published in June 2005

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