Justin Garrison
November 15, 2014

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

Posted on November 15, 2014  •  3 minutes  • 556 words

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 <em>Bill Oberon</em>

“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:

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 _free_dom 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.

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