Some distributions contain the source code for Linux; it is also easily available for download at http://www.kernel.org and elsewhere. Source code is similarly available for all the utilities on Linux (unless your vendor offers a commercial application or library as a special enhancement). You may never bother looking at the source code, but it’s key to Linux’s strength. Under the Linux license, the source code has to be provided or made available by the vendor, and it permits those who are competent at such things to fix bugs, provide advice about the system’s functioning, and submit improvements that benefit everyone. The license is the GNU project’s well-known General Public License, also known as the GPL or “copyleft,” invented and popularized by the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
The FSF, founded by Richard Stallman, is a phenomenon that many people might believe to be impossible if it did not exist. (The same goes for Linux, in fact — 20 years ago, who would have imagined a robust operating system developed by collaborators over the Internet and made freely redistributable?) One of the most popular editors on Unix, GNU Emacs, comes from the FSF. So do gcc and g++ (C and C++ compilers), which for a while set the standard in the industry for optimization and the creation of fast code. One of the most ambitious projects within GNU is the GNOME desktop, which encompasses several useful general-purpose libraries and applications that use these libraries to provide consistent behavior and interoperability.
Dedicated to the sharing of software, the FSF provides all its code and documentation on the Internet and allows anyone with a whim for enhancements to alter the source code. One of its projects is the Debian distribution of Linux.
To prevent hoarding, the FSF requires that the source code for all enhancements be distributed under the same GPL that it uses. This encourages individuals or companies to make improvements and share them with others. The only thing someone cannot do is add enhancements, withhold the source code, and then sell the product as proprietary software. Doing so would be taking advantage of the FSF and users of the GPL. You can find the text of the GPL in any software covered by that license, or online at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html.
As we said earlier, many Linux tools come from BSD instead of GNU. BSD is also free software. The license is significantly different, but that probably doesn’t concern you as a user. The effect of the difference is that companies are permitted to incorporate the software into their proprietary products, a practice that is severely limited by the GNU license.