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Actual meaning of Free Software: Free as in beer versus Free as in speech

Vastness of open source can leave anyone in confusion. Whether it is distro hunting or phrases that are used to explain related concepts. The one which annoys every single beginner is that Open source is said to distribute free software, so far so good, but what exactly we mean by free? Free as is Beer or Free as in Speech? Keep reading.

The difference can be narrowed down to “no money” versus “no restrictions (or a bit of them)”. In English, free is often mistaken for both the meanings but in Spanish they have different words for them, Gratis and Libre.

Free as in Beer (Gratis)

Java from Oracle is a product which is free as in beer. When you are offered a beer, you are not supposed to pay for it but enjoy. The ‘body’ giving away pays for it and everyone enjoys it at no cost.

Java from Oracle is available free of cost for everyone but restricts users from getting even a glimpse of source code. Hence, users are also deprived of the liberty of modifying the code. Speaking of that, none of distributing publicly and submitting bug fixes is available. The decision of What/When/How you get the “beer” is made by the “giver”.

Free as in Speech (libre)

In addition to facility of getting the software for free, the air of liberty comes in. The liberty in “libre” is more than you get in “gratis”. Following are the rights you have in software which are Free as in Speech:

♦ You can use it anyway you want. They don’t care if the software was made for computer you are running it on mobile device. More the merrier!

♦ You can easily see the internal working of the software. Users want to know the secret ingredients in their favourite beer but are deprived of this pleasure in case of free beer.

♦ Sharing is caring! After using and falling in love with the software, one would definitely want to share it and libre allows him to do that without violating any law. Distribute it publicly whether by packaging it with your software or provide a mirror, etc.

♦ You can be a part of the development process. If you find a bug and a fix to it, you can submit it so that community benefits from it. After all it is all about giving away.

5 thoughts on “Actual meaning of Free Software: Free as in beer versus Free as in speech

  1. Finally someone who explains this in a fashion that I can finally get. Been looking for a good explanation of Free as in beer for a while. I find other resources lacking. Always wanted to know how Gratis Libre fits into this.


  2. Alan

    Great explanation that is easy to understand – even for an Englishman :-D Many thanks.

  3. catbuttorama

    As someone who has spent his life working in advertising and has been using Open Source software for nearly two decades now, I have long thought “Free as in beer versus Free as in speech” is THE WORST TAGLINE EVER.
    Most people’s first thought when they read that is “Beer isn’t free… what the?” and frankly it needs an entire article to explain it.
    Kind of like those geek T-shirts with binary or coded messages that are only funny to those that know the code… it’s the polar opposite of effective advertising.

    I explain to people that’s it’s more like “We the people…” in that the software was made by people just like you and I who share similar goals and aren’t motivated merely by profit but by advancing the art and empowering us all.

    In the end, most people just skip over the tagline like I did and enjoy the benefits of Open Source.


  4. rev Tim Lovejoy

    I would just add that the 4 freedoms people talk about in free software deal with the ‘users’ freedoms, NOT the developers.
    Free software is a question of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.
    More precisely it refers to 4 kinds of freedom for the users of the software that you explain so well above.


  5. Most all Open software has some form of license agreement. For example, the BSD license or the GPL(1, 2, or 3) license. While these licenses provide what is called “Open Source” they do have restrictions that can make them somewhat less than “free as in speech or libre”. While the restrictions are quite understandable and laudable in most cases they are still often somewhat restrictive.

    So free as in libre or free speech has still more complicatition. Oh well.

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