Is it on-topic to ask how free/libre/open a certain product is?

While it’s often easy to know for software, it’s typically not so clear for hardware that ships with software. For example, think of a device with software on chips, firmware, drivers, operating systems, libraries, and pre-installed software.

Products are often advertised as being "open source" without going into detail. But it’s rare that this really applies to all software involved (not to speak of the hardware). It can get really hard and complex to get the whole truth.

Example questions (not necessarily good ones, as I didn’t check if the project documentation answers it):

  • Purism is advertised as protecting my freedom, and it comes with a libre operating system, but does it contain any proprietary software?
  • TERES-A64 is offered as "Open Source Hardware and Software". Is really everything open source?
  • Does the (by default inaccessible) Mali-400 GPU in the EOMA68 Libre Tea Computer Card "contain" any proprietary software? (or is it "empty" until a user decides to install a proprietary driver?)
  • Are the modem and the boot ROM the only things using proprietary software on the Tehnoetic S2?
  • The video game Example licenses the code under a libre license, but the assets are proprietary. Are the assets only static files (like images) or could it also be something like a script?
  • Does the Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition ship with any proprietary apps?

So the idea is:

  1. Alice wants to buy/use only products that meet her requirements regarding free/libre/open licenses. It could be that she only wants to buy 100 % FLOSS, or that she only wants to buy products that can be run with FLOSS, or that she only wants to buy a smartphone that comes without proprietary apps, or that she only wants to buy a free/libre/open hardware computer mouse.
  2. Alice has doubts if a certain product meets her requirements. It might be too complex to understand all relevant parts, the documentation might be bad, she might suspect that the project willfully misleads. (In any case, she should ideally point out why she thinks so.)
  3. Alice comes to the experts on Open Source SE. They aren’t necessarily experts in the specific product, but they know the caveats, the lingo, where to look, what to consider.
  4. Alice got an answer. She learned if the product meets her requirements. What else regarding the licenses she didn’t think of might be problematic. Why not meeting her requirements might not be so bad after all.

3 Answers 3


These questions are on-topic IMO, but if the asker doesn't show effort in trying to answer it themselves then the questions will deserve to be downvoted, possibly even heavily downvoted.

For example most Linux distributions (especially Debian ones) make it pretty easy to determine the license of the software packages. Debian based distributions split out non-free software into a separate repository, and in Synaptic you can instantly see any non-free software installed in your OS (at least that has been installed through the OS, if you downloaded some portable non-free software it won't know about it.)

So of your six example questions I would hope that the first and last get downvoted due to the ease by which they can be answered. The others look like they would be much harder to answer, but the questions should still show some attempt at self-answering beyond looking at a single web page.

  • I know this is old, but I checked whether I could easily answer the first question, the one about Purism, and I did not find it so easy to answer. I suspect that in the area of open source, it's never easy, especially if you put in question what should really be open source. Is it only a legal status? Should it apply to a piece of code or to a project? If a piece of code is said to be legally "open source" within a project that is proprietary and there is no "open source" project that manages it, is it the same as if there was one?
    – Dominic108
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 11:58

I like this kind of questions. "Open Source" is a very wide term, and it's often useful to break it down to the details, whether for a regulatory need, personal interest, or just for fun.

My vote is that this should be ontopic.


I'd say that the community of Open Source SE has decided this kind of question is on topic.

From a casual scan of hot questions, and high-vote questions, it seems that whether or not SE and moderators think such questions should be on topic here, the user base has decided that they will treat them as on topic. The answers, in the main, are of the quality and factual nature that I would expect in any SE community. The comments, however, often spiral down with opinions rapidly and at length. Hopefully, as OS SE grows and matures, that will diminish.

  • 1
    Your answer does have a bit of an accusatory tone towards moderators :( Regardless, if you do see anything, do flag it. I don't want any mean arguments around here.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 20:01
  • 1
    Nothing against mods. We need them and it's a job I don't want or envy! Sometimes, from other comments I even feel sorry for them. Above I was referring to lack of "official" input to the question.
    – user7180
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 20:56
  • 2
    Ah. I kinda of just saw this question earlier in the afternoon, but had to get back to what I was doing. In terms of scope, I believe that moderators should be allowed to make recommendations on how to propel the community forward, but it is ultimately up to the entire community to come to consensus on what is written out. Not sure why you were downvoted - you do have valid concern for argument. I do stress you flag if you see any though, sometimes I kinda feel I had more work as a moderator (this site is surprisingly quiet, we probably get 1 flag per week).
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 3:44
  • 1
    I do flag when it hits me in the face, so to speak. I do so cautiously since I'm new and my judgment isn't going to match the community well yet. Still, spam is spam, for example. Can't say if I've done so here or not, don't track it since I'm never likely to hit the limit. I should probably vote more too. :-\
    – user7180
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 3:57

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