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

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

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.

Profile Photo for Justin Garrison Justin Garrison
Justin Garrison is a Linux enthusiast and cloud infrastructure engineer for one of the world's biggest companies. He's also the co-author of Cloud Native Infrastructure by O'Reilly.
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