In open source the term "free" is often used, sometimes with a qualifier, "free as in beer" or "free as in speech". What is meant with these qualifications?


4 Answers 4


Free as in beer, is like getting something without payment. Getting food from the community fair (There's one in Toronto that gives free hamburgers to the community every year), something from friends, these are things that you receive without making a payment. You don't pay money.

Free as in speech relates to the Free Software Movement. To recognize this, we normally refer to it adding the French word libre, in order to help imply the freedom meaning. This is the reason as to why we have the acronym FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software). Libre means that you are unrestricted, like a bird in the skies, to do certain things. With libre software, you can fork the software, and take it. You're allowed to do so, you're libre.

This is a confusion that can be quite confusing. As both words denote the same thing. With people around, they generally take the meaning of "free as in food", rather than freedom. People specify what they mean with the expressions to help clarify and assure themselves that their message can come across reliably.


"Free" is ambiguous in English:

  • A free beer is a beer that you don’t have to pay for (you get it for free).
  • A free speech is a speech where you have the right to express your opinion (you are free).

To disambiguate the meaning of "free", you can refer to these concepts:

  • free as in beer, if it’s about the price of zero (aka. gratis)
  • free as in speech, if it’s about the freedom (aka. libre)

@Zizouz212 almost got the idea 100%. These ideas are not the same otherwise there would not be two phrases. The big difference with this concept can best be described from a great How-To Geek Article on the subject.

"Free as in beer" is when someone gifts to you the software at no cost. You are in no way expected to pay any fee for this or give anything in return. You also cannot see the source code or any of the elements that make it up. Sure you may know that it contains an ingredient (C++,Java), but you don't know exactly how it is put together to make this great software.

One community (joke / accepted practice) for this saying is if you really enjoy a software you (could / should / it's nice) to buy the developer a beer. Basically where this saying came from.

The "free as in speech" is pretty much right on, but is in association to actual open source. You can see and use any version of the code to improve and help yourself or the community.

So like I said they are different and do not mean pretty much the same thing.

It is not unheard of for both to be true at the same time.

  • Nothing about free as in beer software precludes it from being free as in speech software. In fact, often free beer is free speech.
    – RubberDuck
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 1:03
  • @RubberDuck No free beer is not the same as free speech in this context. They are defined separate because they do have separate meaning. It is possible for a software to be provided and you have the ability to change it as you desire for no extra cost. that is Free Speech. Free as in Beer covers software that does not charge you, but you don't know the contents of what makes it up (7-zip). IF you dig hard enough maybe you can figure it out. Same as if you're given a can of beer. you're not going to know the exact hops used or order they were used. Both are about open source.
    – Cayce K
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 1:35
  • almost mixed them up in that comment. edited to make more clear for speech
    – Cayce K
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 1:37
  • I didn't say there were the same. What I said is that libre software can also be zero cost. Of course, zero cost software can also be closed source. You have a serious misconception about the terms here.
    – RubberDuck
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 1:37
  • @RubberDuck I don't see the misconception. At no point do I specifically say that you have to pay for libre software. I did my best to avoid stating any cost, but there is no reason libre software cannot be charged for as well... However, Free as in Beer in the context of the saying does state that you have no access to the files and is provided for free... So I feel like you're missing the point...
    – Cayce K
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 1:43

This question is answered up front in the FSF's What is free software?, which starts out by using the often quoted "free beer" / "free speech" analogy. Quote:

“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software” to show we do not mean it is gratis.

I think this quote answers the OP's question pretty well.

However, to make the meaning of "free software" crystal clear, the FSF goes on to list the "four essential freedoms" that characterizes free software:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

This is IMHO, a very good definition of "free software". In just four short bullet points, we are given all the information we need to decide whether something qualify as "free software" or not.

In contrast, software that is just available at zero cost (aka. "freeware") may not provide any of these freedoms.

Personally, I prefer the word "freedom" over "free speech", as the former better conveys the idea of lack of restrictions. This version is also used as the title for the biography of FSF's Richard M. Stallman by Sam Williams.

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