James Dixon’s Blog

James Dixon’s thoughts on commercial open source and open source business intelligence

What does free as in beer mean? What does free as in speech mean?

with one comment

I am writing this for people for whom English is a second language or who are not from North America and who don’t understand what these statements mean.

These terms would be easier if the words ‘free as in gratis’ and ‘free as in liberty’ were used instead. However we seem to be stuck with the ‘Speech’ and ‘Beer’ ones.

The problem is that the word ‘free’ in English has more than one meaning, some dictionaries give 15 or more different ones. These include

  • Not imprisoned or enslaved; being at liberty. Not subject to external restraint:
  • Costing nothing; gratuitous

These two meanings are very different from each other and unfortunately some topics need to include both ideas. This is particularly true of discussions about open source and free software. In fact the term ‘open source’ was deliberately chosen not to include the word ‘free’ because of the confusion it brings. The terms ‘free as in speech’ and ‘free as in beer’ are used to clarify which meaning of ‘free’ is being used.

‘Free as in speech’ means something that has freedoms or liberties associated with it. It does not mean the same freedoms that come with ‘free speech’ just that liberties are involved.

‘Free as in beer’ means something that costs nothing to obtain.

The wikipedia entry for ‘Gratis verses Libre’ explains things nicely: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gratis#Gratis

Written by James

June 4, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Posted in open source

One Response

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  1. Thanks for the explanation. I have read these phrases for a while, now I understand the difference.


    June 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm

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