Some years ago (more precisely in 1998) the confusion english-speaking people start making with the term free when applied to software led some members of the free software foundation to create a new term: open source ( http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html )

The great concern was that people was misunderstanding free as in free of speech, with free as in free beer (see wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_open_source_software ).

The free here relates to the the liberty of using and sharing your software, in a way that goes against proprietary "copyright" (and patented) software. It was first introduced by Richard Stallman, in 1986. The core is the set of freedoms:

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Well, we all know about that (at least those who is following this discussion since ever).

In my opinion, the term open-source clarified us. But it was already assured by Freedom 1.

In other languages (like spanish or portugese, for instance), we can say free as libre or livre. And the other meaning of free, as in free beer, as gratis. So, for others, there was never a confusion (actually, only when reading english articles about it).

Freedom number 2 guarantees my right to redistribute copies at will. I understand that as I don't need to pay the owner any royalties for every copy I give away to my friends or students. And of course, we will agree with that. This, ultimately means, that I can give free (gratis) copies, or also I can charge for copies (support, media, etc.).

Now, If something can be given away for free (gratis), then it is free (gratis). No matter if someone, or some enterprise, wants to sell, you still have ways (sites, downloads, friends, etc.) to get it for free (gratis).

So, in my non-english point of view, we have 3 different things here. The most important, undoubtedly, is the free (freedom, liberty, libre, livre, so you can all the stuff you want) quality of the software. The other, is being open-source (so you can see the code inside). The last one IS another GREAT quality, that is, there EXIST free (gratis, non-chargeable) software.

Being free (gratis) does not mean it is forced free (gratis). You can have people who sells, who pays, and who gets/sends for free. Still, it is a quality.

What I don't understand is why, after so many years, people from FSF are still cautious to say that there is free (gratis) software also. Yes, free as in free beer. If it is a quality why hide it? Just to prevent confusion? Well, let me tell you the news: confusion was already made since the beginning. I was alive and interested in the subject when it started, and I remember lots of discussions about this free being free of charge, or free of restrictions.

After lots of consulting, lawyers helped to write the first "license" in terms that could be used in court, introduced the term "copyleft", and made it "clear" that free is not about price.

At that time, because of the novelty, ok, I agree to emphasize this half-part of the free. But now we are over it. Isn't it time to tell people that we ALSO have free as in free of charge.

Three qualities is better than two: livre/gratis/open.

So, why don't we tell people that free software can be just free?


More objectively: 1- Is a free (freedom) software necessarily free (gratis)? 2- Is a free (gratis) software necessarily free (freedom).

The first one is the important question, as the second is just there to hold fast typers (we all know the answer).

Another question raised from the discussion: Is free (gratis) a quality? (I assumed that as taken for granted in the question introduction)

  • 6
    I've heard "Free as in speech, and free as in beer" fairly frequently...
    – Trezoid
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:30
  • Hi Trezoid! Hum... That is good news. :)
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:39
  • 1
    Nice title. You got my attention :)
    – John Shaft
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 9:30
  • 2
    nice historical essay; rhetorical question. Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 14:04
  • 1
    I read a long time before finding a question, and then it was unclear, except as it references the preceding editorial opinion. If you want this to survive, please trim it down as much as possible and remove the editorializing. If the essay and editorializing are an inherent part of the question for you, it doesn't belong here, or on any other SE site. Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 18:10

8 Answers 8


From an averarge user point of view, you only care for free beer. And you prefer usability to openness.
Even not taking them into consideration, programmers are the smallest group involved in the software market (just thing of management, legal departments, accounting, marketing).

And for all those people "free" means gratis, which is why the distinction is extremely important. Because there was proprietary gratis software out there prior to the definition of free software. For the lack of a better word, they went with free and they had to redefine it clearly. Freedom is priceless, while gratis software has a price of 0. This is quite a difference, because the latter can be thought of as purchasing a software (at no cost).

In its radicality, it was a fairly new approach (before software just happened to be free unintentionally).
It should be noted, they combine a lot of freedoms, which are orthogonal. Free in their understanding is not so much the opposite of closed source - open source is. Free is the opposite of proprietary: the software is not the propriety of someone, it is an non-owned good, that everybody can use in any way he pleases. However, from the perspective of a programmer, a gratis closed source software however can hardly be considered free, because only the source owners are free to modify it.

For example, there is proprietary open source software. It means, you get a software along with its sources, along with restrictions how you may use that source (exclusion of distribution might be one). And that software itself might have a price tag or not (the latter being unlikely).
In the web development scene, this is not uncommon, especially for HTML and Flash templates, which are sold as sources for further modification.
But I recall a case of proprietary gratis open source software: The Adobe Flex SDK (a framework, toolset and compiler to programatically create Flash content). Parts of it were distributed as source without cost, but redistribution was forbidden by the license (for some strategic reasons I suppose).

So while there is nothing wrong with software shipping without cost, and you may call it free if you wish ("normal" people will understand exactly what you say), the FSF claimed its own definition of the word, to encompass all the individual freedoms simultaneously, in contradistinction to software, that doesn't, and is thus not free in one aspect or another, or in their understanding, simply not free in contradistinction to their ideal.

  • Thanks for sharing your view. This is really a good approach to the problem posted. This answer can really enlighten the use of "free" chosen by FSF. But in some ways, although I disagree, the answer given by @Martin touched another point, about some stigma the word carries.
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 18:11
  • @Dr Beco: Rereading my answer, I feel it might suggest a little too strongly, that the FSF's definition of 'free' is the only way of defining the word. What I really wanted to point out was the idealogically fundamental difference. Whether you support that point or not, is rather a matter of belief, than anything else.
    – back2dos
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 22:48
  • @Dr Beco: @Martin raises an interesting point, but what you pay for in cases like those is not the software. I think MySQL is probably a better example, since no more than 1/10000 of their installs are paid licences (yet they've been bought for 1 billion). And what they are paid for is training and support, which are complements to their free software, but that is an independent service, that everybody is free to use. Customers opting for it actually pay for not having the responsibility that comes with the available freedom, but rather want to shift it away. Still, it's a free choice!
    – back2dos
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 22:58

Because 'Free' translates as worthless in business speak.

If Linux is 'Free' how can Redhat take $Bn/year? Why should Oracle and IBM support software that is 'Free' and so you can't make money from.

  • Hi there Martin. Well, I don't believe we cant make money from free (gratis) software. They are there, they are free, and they are making money for their supporters/programmers. And I always can get Redhat for free, if I don't want to buy. It in the license.
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:25
  • I was just explaining why it was felt necessary, in the USA at least, to have a word other than free Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:29
  • I see. But it is too strong to say free as worthless, isn't it? Well, you are the english guy. I just learned as second language. :)
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:40
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    In business speak (a foreign language to all of us!) Free = worthless Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 5:54
  • Linux is free, Redhat's expertise in service and support of Linux isn't free. That is how they make their money. Like hardware, the profit margin on software is being squeezed so companies look to the services that surround the software to make a profit; but the software remains free. For software, business rarely looks at product cost, they are interested in the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) which includes product cost, support costs, maintenance, etc, etc. I've yet to meet a business man who doesn't like truly free (but only as a purchaser) ;)
    – Lazarus
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 9:28

The word free in "free software" has nothing to do with cost. In the four freedoms that you provided there is nothing referring to the cost of the software. The decision of some people to provide their "free software" gratis is purely a developer's personal decision. So long as a piece of software violates one of the four freedoms is not "free as in freedom" (that's where the FSF focuses). Thus, a program that is provided gratis but doesn't provide you its source code (violation of freedoms 1 and 3) -- for example winzip -- is not considered "free software" (neither open source).

PS: The differences between free software and open source should be better discussed in another question.

  • Hi there @faif. So do you believe it is possible to have a truly free software accordingly to all freedoms and that is also not forced gratis? Thanks for sharing.
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 19:54
  • 1
    @dr-beco Definitely. The licenses (at least GPL) don't force to distribute your application gratis. It's actually the exact opposite. Most free software developers today sell books and services (support, updates, etc.) instead of source code, but that's purely a matter of preference. BTW, rms was indeed one of the first free software developers who made money by selling Emacs copies (look into the "GNU Emacs" section of the article).
    – sakisk
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 20:28

To answer the edited questions:

Free as in speech software is not necessarily free as in beer. Anybody with a legit copy can just give you one, and if you get a legit copy you can give it away. There are no requirements to do either (although there can be some conditions on the gift - the GPL, for example, demands that you offer or provide source with the binaries). Lots of Free Software is sold.

Free as in beer software is not necessarily free as in speech. For example, Adobe Reader may be downloaded for free from Adobe, but there's limits as to what you can do with it.

Being "free as in beer" strikes me as a quality, but if you have to ask the question then I really don't know what you mean by "quality".

  • But in the first case (free-dom software), don't you think that if the software can be given away, don't necessarily means it is gratis?
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 3:14
  • @Dr Beco: Why? If something is available gratis, I can get a copy without charge. I can't necessarily get any arbitrary GPLed software gratis, since nobody with a copy might want to give me one gratis. Once I get my copy, I don't have to redistribute it. Free as in speech is usually free as in beer, but it doesn't have to be. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 14:02
  • Hi @David. Thanks for clarifying. So the scenario is: some enterprise (lets say) made a GPL software and want to sell. It sells a lot. People paid for it. Now, one wants the software but for free. Then, he/she can't find a single person, nor the very enterprise, who is willing to give him/her a copy? That is why the software is not necessarily gratis? (Although, in principle, it is still gratis! Some just cant find a distributor?)
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 20:56
  • @Dr Beco: Suppose my company incorporates GPLed software in an application that will inherently have few customers, but benefit them a lot. I'm willing to sell copies for a million dollars each, and two large companies buy them from me. Now, I don't want to give you a copy, because that's not my business model, and neither company wants to give you a copy, because it could destroy the competitive advantage they paid for. I completely fail to understand what you mean by "in principle". It's gratis if you can get somebody to give you a copy for free. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 21:55
  • @David: In this crazy scenario, suppose a user bought a GPL software for 1 million. Is it illegal for him to give it for free to another user? Is it illegal if he sells the same software for 500 bucks? Is it even possible a joint of many users brings up the money to buy only one copy? And after some months, when the value of the initial purchase is dissolved, you will find people who don't care to give it for free? I mean, in principle, it is free, not illegal to give away. It is a matter of finding who wants to give you the software. Not a matter of licensing.
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 22:33

I don't believe that anyone is telling people that software can't just be free. The FSF may have their licensing terms and they may be proscriptive (i.e. your freedom has conditions) but you are by no means forced to use their licensing for your code.

You could use the MIT license which basically says, do what you want but don't come after me when it breaks and you incur cost. You are free, if you care to, to write your own license or not have a license at all and just release your code into the public domain.

Software can and is free in a variety of ways, sometimes it's related to what the developer wants, sometimes it's what the user wants and sometimes it's for financial reasons. After all, it's been said of many things, it's variety that makes it interesting.


For me free software is software that is 'living'. It's free in the sense that it's free to grow in ways that are determined by it's community. Software for free is software without a cost.

  • For me free software is software that I don't have to pay money for, just that.
    – Pieter B
    Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 8:36

For GPL, I don't think "the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor." makes any sense if my neighbor is a casual iPhone user. I cannot plot a go playing program to iPhone, put it on AppStore as freeware, let my neighbor download and play it.

If license is BSD-like, I can.

For this particular example, a FOSS license meets AppStore, I see more freedom in BSD than GPL ...

  • Dear @ohho, could you elaborate a little bit on the specifics? The link you posted shows a GPL go program for iPhone? Thanks!
    – DrBeco
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 3:12
  • When porting the GPL go program, I was warned about license issue (GPL on AppStore). Then I came across the GnuGo story (google.com/search?q=gnugo+appstore). Finally I gave up porting the rest onto AppStore and just leave the source on GitHub.
    – ohho
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 3:41

The last one IS another GREAT quality, that is, there EXIST free (gratis, non-chargeable) software.

What I don't understand is why, after so many years, people from FSF are still cautious to say that there is free (gratis) software also. Yes, free as in free beer. If it is a quality why hide it? Just to prevent confusion?

The problem with just "Gratis" software is that any software where you don't have to pay to use it is gratis (free). Regardless of what draconian license there might be. And ofcourse with the grand success of free software, the aiblity to label software as free is worth a lot.

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