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What Does “Free as in Speech” or “Free as in Beer” Really Mean?

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In the open source community you’ll often hear the phrase “free as in speech” or “free as in beer” in reference to software products, but what do these phrases actually mean? Let’s walk you through the meaning behind each.

The terms are generally used to differentiate between free software, like the Internet Explorer or Opera browsers, and open-source software, like Chromium or Firefox. In a nutshell, it translates to “zero price” (gratis) versus “with few or no restrictions” (libre). Keep reading.

Free as in Beer

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Photo by Bill Oberon

“Free as in beer” is the easiest concept to understand—free beer is a gift given to you at no cost with no expectations of you. The giver simply needs to pay for the beer and give it to you to enjoy without you needing to do anything. This is the “gratis” part of the phrase meaning “at no cost”.

This phrase would apply to software such as Adobe’s Flash Player and Oracle’s Java—both of these products are freely available for anyone to use and enjoy, but the user cannot look at the source code and make modifications if they desire. You also do not have the freedom to distribute the software publicly, or submit bug fixes or patches to have them included in the product. Finally, the giver e.g., Adobe and Oracle, is in control over which brand of beer you get and when you get it.

Note: This is not to be confused with beerware licensed software in which the user, should they meet the developer in person, buy the developer a beer if they find the software “worth it”. Beerware licensed software would still fall under the libre (free as in speech) category of software.

Free as in Speech

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On the other hand, “free as in speech” is a matter of liberty and not just the ability to get the software for free. This liberty (libre) gives you four rights that a free beer does not:

  • You, as the user, have the right to run the software however you would like. Meaning if you have a computer that runs it, great! If you have a phone or calculator that can run the software too, even better.
  • You have the right to seeing how the software actually works. This would be akin to knowing the secret ingredients in your favorite beer or soft drink. With free beer, the consumer doesn’t have that freedom.
  • You are also able to redistribute the software however you’d like. Whether that means you would package the software as part of your own program, or simply provide a mirror so your friends can download it directly from you.
  • You have the right to improve the program, assuming you know how to, and submit those improvements so the public can benefit from your efforts.

Free as in speech software is often released under the General Public License (GPL) and is sometimes referred to as “free software” instead of “open source software” to put emphasis on the freedom the software has.

There are many different variations of GPL software and many other licenses that would still provide the freedoms above, including beerware and WTFPL. You can read more about truly free software at the Free Software Foundation web site.


When it comes down to it, you either have the freedom or you don’t.

Justin is a Linux and HTPC enthusiast who loves to try new projects. He isn't scared of bricking a cell phone in the name of freedom.

  • Published 10/15/10

Comments (10)

  1. superfahd

    Oh man thank you so much for clarifying that! Somehow I just couldn’t get my head around the free as in beer thing. maybe its cuz im from a country without beer!

  2. Danny

    “The terms are generally used to differentiate between free software, like the Internet Explorer or Opera browsers, and open-source software, like Chromium or Firefox.”

    1) Do not refer to freeware as “free software”. The Free Software Foundation (and FSF fanboys) uses “free software” to refer to “libre” software. Use freeware when you mean gratis software.

    2) “Open source” is a broad term, and not all open source software are “libre”, such as those that are licensed with, for example, the CDDL. For instance, you can publish your source code but restrict others from redistributing “derived” works or compiled binaries of it. To make it even more ambiguous, there’s the Open Source Initiative that evaluates and certifies licenses as “open source”. While there is some overlap between OSI-approved and FSF-compatible licenses, there are exceptions.

    “You are also able to redistribute the software however you’d like… Free as in speech software is often released under the General Public License”

    The GPL, and other strong copyleft licenses, place some restrictions on redistribution of GPL-ed software. Weak copyleft licenses like the 2 clause BSD license places much fewer restrictions. For example, a closed source software cannot use GPL-ed components unless the final software is relicensed as GPL. With BSD derived components, you can keep the software closed source and just acknowledge your use of the original BSD software. Public domain software have no restrictions and are the only ones that meets your criterion to “redistribute the software however you’d like”.

    In other words, the open source license used can impact how it can be redistributed.

  3. larry h.

    i am trying to get a free clock for my desktop. can u help me with this ?

  4. Anna

    Thanks for explaining this, I saw it on the notepad++ website and didn’t know what it meant.

  5. Linda

    Between this article and the one I just used to sync my ipod with my hotmail account,I am a very happer camper! thanks for all the free as in free demo!

  6. anand warik

    These phrases often mentioned in articles, and till now i never knew what it meant. Thank you for explaining it.
    I could understand roughly what it meant but Danny has confused me with his high level language. Will Danny explain it in simple low level English?

  7. Mohammad Elsheimy

    This is a very interesting post. Thank you very much! And thank you to Danny, really very useful information. :)

  8. Dash

    i’m glad that in spanish we have different words for thos concepts.. free (as in free beer) is “gratis” and free (as in free speech) is “libre”

    but somehow people still mix-up “gratis” and “libre”

  9. loknath

    Thank u very much…gr8 info…

  10. Raúl

    I liked this article so much that I’d love to use it in my computer science classes to explain the concept. Unfortunately, there is no translation to Spanish… Is it OK if I tranlate and publish it in my blog (credit to the original included, of course)?

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