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From Definition of Free Cultural Works
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This is the openly editable version of the definition. Please try to find a consensus for any significant changes you make on the discussion page. If you want to work on a substantially different derivative, you can try creating a fork. See authoring process for more information.


This document defines the term "Free Content" as any work or expression which can be freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified, by anyone, for any purpose. It also describes certain permissible restrictions that respect or protect these essential freedoms. The definition distinguishes between free works, and free licenses which can be used to legally protect the status of a free work. The definition itself is not a license; it is a tool to determine whether a work or license should be considered "free".


Through global communication networks, hundreds of millions of human beings today have the ability to access, modify, author, publish and distribute artistic works, scientific and educational materials, commentary, reports, and documents; in short: anything that can be represented as a sequence of bits. In many cases, however, we find that copyright laws, which restrict the use of a work for decades even beyond the author's death, impede cultural and scientific progress. Worse, new tools such as Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) are invented to control the flow of information and eliminate freedoms that we have long taken for granted.

Works built by communities collaborating as volunteers, art created for the purpose of shared enjoyment, essential learning materials, scientific research funded through taxpayer money, and many other creative expressions are harmed by artificial scarcity. They benefit from being used freely. We therefore believe that these works should be free, and by "freedom" we mean:

  • the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • the freedom to make improvements or other changes, and to distribute derivative works

For a work to be free, these freedoms should be available to absolutely anyone, anywhere. To the extent possible, they should not be restricted by the context in which the work is used.

In most countries, any original work of authorship is automatically covered by copyright law or by similar legal regimes4. Under all those regimes, authors are considered god-like "creators" and are given legal powers they can use against those who duplicate "their" content in altered or unaltered form. Only very limited freedoms are granted to others unless authors choose to explicitly relinquish some or all of these powers. To do so, authors can explicitly release their work into the public domain (no copyright)1, or can choose among a vast array of legal documents known as licenses to grant, retain or qualify their exclusive rights.

Not all licenses grant the freedoms enumerated above. For example, some popular licenses forbid the creation of derivative works, or the commercial use of a work. Some licenses are even more specific. They limit usage of the work to particular regions of the world, or to relative quantities of information. These cannot be called "free licenses," as no work can be truly called "free" unless it can be freely shared, freely modified, freely aggregated, freely combined, and freely provided through any channel.

Works under licenses that prohibit essential freedoms stand separate from the body of works that is not impeded by these restrictions. They are philosophically and legally incompatible with the licensing options used by the growing movement that refers to its works as "free content." This definition defines what conditions a licensing agreement must meet so that the license can be considered free.

Being in the public domain, under a free license or otherwise legally unimpeded in the sense described above is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a work to be free. It is not sufficient because a work may be unfree in other ways: It may only be provided in a form that cannot be easily modified, it may be given in a file format that is covered by patents or other legal or practical restrictions, it may violate the rights of others. Therefore, this definition seeks to also define what additional conditions a work must meet to be considered free.

We believe that whenever the term "free" needs to be significantly qualified ("it is free, but you cannot .."), it can only mean "free" in the sense of "gratis, without cost". It can never mean that every essential freedom is present. It is the goal of this definition to precisely define the essential freedoms, and to provide guidelines by which existing licenses and works can be certified as meeting this definition.

Naming freedom

This is the Free Content Definition, and when describing licenses or works, we encourage you to use the term "Free Content" and the associated logo. Please be aware that the Free Content Definition is not a license, and for your work to be free, you should either release it into the public domain, or use one of the free content licenses. If you dislike the term "Free Content", the following more specific terms are used in similar ways:

We discourage you from using the following terms, unless you want to be deliberately vague and inclusive:

  • Open Content - has no clear definition and is often used to refer to licenses that prohibit commercial use, modifications, etc.
  • Open Access - has competing definitions and competing uses, some of which prohibit commercial use, and is often used to simply refer to scientific material which is "available on the web"
  • Free Culture - while an attempt has been made to define this term in the spirit of this definition, it is generally used to refer broadly to content which is available under "less restrictive" terms than those of existing copyright laws

Recommended and required criteria

This definition uses the terms may, may not and must not in obvious ways to distinguish required and optional criteria for covered licenses. Importantly, it uses the term should where we recommend that licenses which do not meet the stated criteria should be amended. Later versions of this definition may make some of these criteria mandatory.

Defining free licenses

Licenses are agreements through which the owner of certain legal rights may transfer these rights to third parties. Free Content Licenses do not take any rights away -- they are always optional to accept, and if accepted, they grant freedoms which copyright law alone does not provide. When accepted, they never limit or reduce existing exemptions to national copyright laws.

Essential freedoms

In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:

  • The freedom to study and apply the information: The licensee must not be restricted by clauses which limit their right to examine, alter or apply the information. The license may not, for example, restrict "reverse engineering", and it may not limit the application of knowledge gained from the work in any way.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies: Copies may be sold, swapped or given away for free, as part of a larger work, a collection, or independently. There must be no limit on the amount of information that can be copied. There must also not be any limit on who can copy the information or on where the information can be copied.
  • The freedom to distribute derivative works: In order to give everyone the ability to improve upon a work, the license must not limit the freedom to distribute a modified version (or, for physical works, a work somehow derived from the original), regardless of the intent and purpose of such modifications. However, some restrictions may be applied to protect these essential freedoms or the attribution of authors (see below).

Allowed requirements and restrictions

There are certain restrictions on the use or interchange of works that we do not feel impede on the essential freedoms enumerated above. These are described below.


Attribution protects the integrity of an original work, and provides credit and recognition for authors. A license may therefore require attribution of the author or authors, provided such attribution does not impede normal use of the work. For example, it would not be acceptable for the license to require a significantly more cumbersome method of attribution when a modified version of the licensed text is distributed.

Protection of freedoms

The license may include clauses that strive to protect the essential freedoms of the work, such as:

  • transparent copies: a clause requiring all copies of the work to be in a transparent file format (documented and not encumbered by patents) which allows the work to be freely used in perpetuity
  • copyleft or "share-alike": a clause requiring that derivative works are entirely made available under a license which meets this definition
  • free from technical restrictions: a clause prohibiting the use of technical measures designed to prevent individuals to whom the work is distributed from exercising any of the freedoms described above

The license may not include clauses that strive to limit the essential freedoms of the work, such as:

  • usage restrictions: the license must not limit the licensee's actions beyond those which may have a plausible and direct impact on the essential freedoms of the work or its derivatives. Explicitly, it must not limit commercial use of the work.


Authors of licenses should make an effort to gradually make licenses which share nearly equivalent philosophical roots and legal principles compatible with each other to ensure that works under these licenses can be combined and aggregated freely. This may be accomplished by altering the terms of the license (e.g. by removing a restriction which the other license does not have), or by adding migration clauses which allow the use of the licensed work under the now compatible license.

When making copies of a work, the licensee should be allowed to refer to a resource pointer instead of being required to distribute the license text itself with each copy of the work. Similarly, the license should allow the author or authors to specify a resource pointer for the attribution of multiple authors of a work. This is to ensure that the attribution requirement for complex collaborative works does not become an impediment.

Defining free works

In order to be considered free content, a work must be covered by a free content license, or its legal status (such as the public domain, or national copyright exemptions granted on government-produced works) must otherwise provide the same basic freedoms enumerated above. Even when covered by a free license, a license must meet the following conditions in order to be considered free content:

  • preferred format: The work should, whenever possible2, be made available (at least on request) in the form that is preferred for making modifications to it. For instance, for software, source code should be provided, because the binary code of a computer program is practically useless for modifying the software. For a computer-generated sound, image or film, the files that were used to create the final product (whichever form it may take) should be made available.
  • free format: For digital files, the format in which the work is made available should not be protected by patents, unless a world-wide, unlimited and irrevocable royalty-free grant is given to make use of the patetented technology. While non-free formats may sometimes be used for practical reasons, a free format copy must be available for the work to be considered free.
  • no technical restrictions: The work must be available in a form where no technical measures are used to limit the freedoms enumerated above.
  • no other restrictions: The work itself must not be covered by legal restrictions (patents, contracts, etc.) which would impede the freedoms enumerated above.
  • no violations of rights of others: A free work must not infringe upon other people's rights -- however, when in doubt, a work should be considered free until shown otherwise. A work may make use of existing legal exemptions to copyright (in order to cite copyrighted works), though only the portions of it which are unambiguously free constitute a free work.

In other words, whenever the user of a work cannot legally or practically exercise his or her basic freedoms, the work cannot be considered free and should not be called "free content."

Further reading

  • See Licenses for discussion of individual licenses, and whether they meet this definition or not.
  • See History for acknowledgments and background on this definition.
  • See the FAQ for some questions and answers.
  • See Portal:Index for topic-specific pages about free content works.


  1. Under some jurisdictions, notably some European countries, authors have inalienable moral rights and cannot completely release their works into the public domain. If you believe that you have a right to put your own works in the public domain, regardless of what the law says, you can make a declaration of public domain status which contains a safeguard clause, such as: "I, the author of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible: I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law."
  2. Sometimes, the preferable form may be lost, or the author may have used an undesirable form to begin with. In other cases, the work may have been created in a non-free format which is practically preferable to a free format; in those cases, the freedom of the format takes precedence.


New versions of this definition shall be released as soon as a consensus (achieved directly or through a vote, as per the authoring process) has developed around suggested changes. Numbering shall be 0.x for initial draft releases, 1.x, 2.x .. for major releases, x.1, x.2 .. for minor releases. A minor release is made when the text is modified in ways which do not have an impact on the scope of existing or hypothetical licenses covered by this definition.