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I'm having trouble wrapping my head around why copyleft libre software advocates say they advocate for "free as in free speech" software, rather than monetarily free software, when it seems like copyleft would lead to all libre software becoming monetarily free.

If Alice makes a video game that incorporates some software under the latest copyleft license, and charges some reasonable price for it, Bob could easily and legally buy one copy of the game, a cheap website domain, and allow anybody to download a copy of his copy, if they'll go to his website where he hosts some ads. Since there's a way to profit from this by ad money, there'd likely be dozens of Bobs. Because Bob's copy of the game is indistinguishable from Alice's original copy, why would anybody buy the game from Alice when they could just get it from Bob? Or copy it from a friend?

If Alice charges for the game, very few people will actually buy it, because it will eventually become free by redistribution. So why call copyleft software licenses "free as in free speech" and not necessarily "free as in free beer" when it seems they will inevitably become "free as in free beer?"

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  • I did my best to search for answers to this, so apologies if this seems obvious to you -- I'm a new contributor trying to wrap my head around this stuff. I'm sure most of you already know the answer to this, but I can't seem to find a satisfying explanation online. – Lysanderoth May 11 at 16:57
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    In your example, there is no need for Alice to make her game "free as in free speech". She can make the software FOSS, but keep the game assets and IP proprietary, thus preventing no-effort clones. People could still copy her engine and provide similar assets to produce a low-effort clone, but that happens with most games anyway, even when they aren't FOSS. – Max May 12 at 19:20
  • @Max That's a fair point. I don't think the fact that it's a game is super relevant to the question of free speech and free beer -- I just chose it because that's the kind of software I'm most familiar with. But thanks for bringing it up! – Lysanderoth May 13 at 16:48
  • Because it can be charged for, it is not always gratis, so not always free. Further, copyright does generally still exist so it cannot be "locked" by a third party. Patents are good for what, 20 years? Publishing as Open Source protects for many times that. – mckenzm May 14 at 3:10
  • There are some exceptions actually. Ardour is an example of a program where the official binary download is not free even though it is under the GPL, although you could pay just 1 dollar. – Max Xiong May 14 at 4:52
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You've noticed that if a piece of software is "free as in speech," it will probably become "free as in beer" too. That's completely true.

The important thing, however, is that the converse is not true. If a piece of software is "free as in beer," it will not automatically become "free as in speech." There are a lot of things that you can't necessarily do with software that's "free as in beer": you can't necessarily modify it or give copies of it to other people (whether the copies are modified or unmodified).

The free software community wants to create software that people can modify and give copies of to other people (both unmodified and modified copies). That's the reason for distinguishing "free as in speech" from "free as in beer."

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    TL;DR: free speech ⊂ free beer. – henning May 12 at 11:21
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    @Lysanderoth The biggest difference is that software can be free as in free beer, but not actually open source at all, where even looking at the assembly is usually a violation of the EULA and thus copyright infringement. E.g. Windows 10 is free as in free beer, openly available from bit.ly/3uJMHH1 , but Windows 10 is not free as in free speech. – Nicholas Pipitone May 12 at 18:32
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    A lot of software out there is "free as in mattress." – Simon Richter May 13 at 9:49
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    @SimonRichter What does "free as in mattress" mean? – OmarL May 13 at 18:16
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    @OmarL, like someone put a mattress out in the street and taped a paper to it that says "free mattress". It's free, but the person who put it out has moved on to something better. – Simon Richter May 13 at 18:23
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This is why most Open Source vendors sell service plans rather than software.

Yes, the nature of Open Source licenses would allow anyone to download and install the software for free, and to in turn give free copies of the software to other people.

As a result, most Open Source vendors don't sell the software itself - they sell service plans. You can install the software for free, but if you want their help with installing, using, or modifying it, you need to pay them. Often, they sell these support packages to businesses who use this software for their business, and the support they sell would help the business get things working again if the system goes down and begins costing the company money.

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    For large businesses, there is another very attractive feature of buying the software rather than copying it for free: having a sales contract to sue over. – Jörg W Mittag May 12 at 3:46
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Actually I think this rule is coming from the ages before internet was available for everyone. Like 29 years ago you could buy a few floppy disks with linux on it. And that the vendor could charge you was only legal because it was 'free as in speech' and not 'as in beer'. At that time copying software was not effortless.

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    This is a perfectly valid point. Heck, I remember buying a Linux install CD (it came conveniently bundled with a magazine) back in 2000 or so because that was the easiest way to get my OS-less computer running so I could connect to the Internet in the first place. – Ilmari Karonen May 12 at 23:09
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The answers here are great, and this one won’t be better, but there is a point that hasn’t been addressed in any of them and can be pertinent to this conversation:

Because Bob's copy of the game is indistinguishable from Alice's original copy, why would anybody buy the game from Alice when they could just get it from Bob? Or copy it from a friend?

Sometimes, they might do this, because they want to give Alice money for the game she made. This is, in fact, extremely common—most of the projects on Kickstarter are predicated upon it, since generally speaking the “rewards” you receive for contributing are pretty clearly not really worth their cost (and that’s before we even get into the risk of the project going uncompleted).

It’s also a common facet of tabletop roleplaying games, which is where I have the most experience with it (I’ve done some freelance work in the field). The overwhelming majority of most games can be gotten freely, legally, on websites. Much of the industry uses the “Open Game License” for their work, at least as far as the game rules are concerned, and the OGL is more-or-less what it says it is.¹ There are still companies selling those products, and there are still people buying them, because people want to support those companies and see more of those products get made.

The sold versions may have some perks—artwork, usually, since that’s basically never licensed under the OGL—but the books can be quite expensive,² and the meat of them is freely and legally available, and they’re certainly widely pirated if you really want those perks, and people still pay for them. I did work for one company which even did quite a bit of social-media style outreach on 4chan, a notable hive of scum and villainy that included links to pirated copies of the company’s work at the top of each (relevant) discussion. They got sales from 4chan, despite the fact that it was literally easier to download the pirated copy than it was the paid-for copy (the company’s online store sucked).

So it can be possible to have a “free as in speech” product that is nonetheless not “free as in beer.” That product will almost-certainly also be available “free as in beer” elsewhere (assuming it’s popular enough), but people may still be willing to pay for it just to support the creators. This can be generosity, a sense of gratitude or reciprocity or appreciation, or even selfish if it’s believed to be necessary to get more content from the creators.

  1. I am not a lawyer and not super “up” on open-source licenses, so I don’t know if there might be some snags in it that are considered non-open. It’s not copy-left, either, though in practice very few people have tried to create things licensed off of the OGL without licensing the new material under the OGL as well—in fact, I’m not aware of a single case of that.

  2. Though not nearly expensive enough to cover the cost of making them to any degree of quality, if you’re not one of the few big names—and, I suspect, often even if you are: there is really very little money in the industry.

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    It's also worth adding that the term "free as in beer" implies that the user shouldn't pay for the software. Such an implication would be misleading for free software projects that use a donation or a pay-what-you-want model. – Tin Man May 14 at 14:27
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While someone who had bought a piece of copyleft software only distributed by the author for paying customers could indeed redistribute it for free, it doesn't necessarily follow that someone would.

Even if the software is copyleft, the party developing and selling that software can ask their clients (more or less) nicely to please not redistribute it. If the clients are mostly businesses, they might care more about getting the software they want and leave it at that instead of trying to undermine the business model of their provider. Also, having already paid, they'd have nothing to gain themselves from redistributing the software without cost. All the benefits would go to others, including probably their competitors.

On the other hand, were they to get caught, they might lose some goodwill in the eyes of the provider, affecting that relationship, and possibly leading to issues the next time they'd want to renew their service contract.

As a somewhat-known case, the grsecurity patches to the Linux kernel have been available for paying customers only for a few years now, and at least I haven't heard they'd been publicly leaked. Some of the things the patchset does have been reimplemented in the main Linux tree, but I haven't followed the details too closely.

See Grsecurity goes private on LWN.net for a longer discussion. (Notably, the comment thread there is also somewhat sensible.)

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  • The other way to make money selling copyleft software is via dual-licensing. However, this only works if the seller is the copyright-holder for the entire codebase. – Brian May 12 at 14:19
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When people hear that a product or service is free, their natural assumption is that this refers to the price. If someone charges them to download a Linux distribution, they'll feel cheated -- "Hey, I thought Linux was free software!"

The distinction is then made to address this common misunderstanding. "We didn't mean the price is zero, we meant that the software is free from restrictions on what you can do with it." This has been abbreviated to "free as in speech vs. free as in beer" to make the distinction clear by using simple, well known phrases.

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Another hypothetical counterexample you can imagine is custom software written by a contractor/consultancy. (Although my guess is that's usually covered by a transfer of copyright from supplier to client.) The client pays the contractor to make them an e-shop; the contractor retains the right to use the code they made as they see fit; and the client is mandated to pass on their copy of the code on the same terms.

Admittedly a bit unrealistic, but if the code in question doesn't really involve sensitive trade secrets it doesn't make a lot of difference to the client - they pay money to have features they wish added to the software, which isn't necessarily too valuable to a competitor. (Seeing as it would be adapted to that one client's specific needs.)

Basically there's a whole lot of code written in the world of which only one "copy" ever changes hands.

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To make a distinction between free software (as in software you can download for free) and free software (software where you are free to use it how you want). You could also charge for the use of free (as in speech) software, but as you said it would likely be taken advantage of.

Even though the term freeware exists your average person would still say free software when referring to software they got for free. You can't expect everyone to understand the "proper terms".

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  • -1. OP is very clear on what the terms mean. They're asking about why the distinction is being made. – Brondahl May 14 at 8:29
  • There's a different term used for software one can download for free — freeware. "Free software", on the other hand, tends to be used to refer only to free-as-in-speech software. – Tin Man May 14 at 14:25

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