What is the difference between "free-as-in-speech" and "free-as-in-beer"?

  • 2
    One thing I want to point out is that the "free as in speech" is often misused to refer the the GPL. While it is true that GPL software has nearly all the freedoms of public domain software (probably the most free software around) it is lacking the freedom to use the code in a proprietary codebase. GPL supporters say that this enhances the other freedoms because "no one could make it nonfree". Oct 19, 2010 at 23:29
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  • Renjith, would examples of the drastically different license terms for various software help you understand? Oct 26, 2010 at 17:09
  • Visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Pandya
    Dec 17, 2015 at 9:22

5 Answers 5


"free" is ambiguous in English, and FOSS people tend to mean the former when people misinterpret it as the latter, which is why the phrases came about

  • free as in speech means freedom; in an open-source context, the license doesn't prevent you from fiddling with the code or making your own changes
  • free as in beer means price; the software costs nothing

There was (is?) a lot of confusion when people said they support "free software" -- free (as in speech) software doesn't need to cost nothing, and costing nothing doesn't necessarily make software "free".

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    In "free as in speech means freedom", s/freedom/liberty/ will make it more clear, I think. Oct 20, 2010 at 2:57

As I mentioned in the comments here, I e-mailed Mr. Richard Stallman about this. Here is his reply:

From: Richard Stallman
Date: Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 9:12 AM
Subject: Re: “free-as-in-speech” vs. "free-as-in-beer”

QN: I would like to know the exact meaning of "free-as-in-speech" and "free-as-in-beer"

It is hard to give "exact" meanings for philosophical concepts, so I am a bit lost.

The English word "free" has two different meanings. Many other languages have different words for them. For instance, I think Hindi has "mukt" for "free as in freedom" and "muft" for "gratis, zero price'.

QN: Also why this example words (the words free-as-in-speech and free-as-in-beer) are being used to descibe the concept?

Those are not the words I use. I use "free as in 'free speech'" and "free as in 'free beer'". Is that clearer?

It seems you heard someone else shorten the two phrases a little.

Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation
51 Franklin St
Boston MA 02110
www.fsf.org, www.gnu.org

  • What is the exact meaning of "free as in "free speech" "? Is it possible to do free speech on any thing at anywhere ?
    – Renjith G
    Oct 22, 2010 at 20:49
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    did you understand the concept "freedom of speech" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech ?
    – echox
    Oct 22, 2010 at 21:09
  • Renjith G: good questions, perhaps, it helps to analyze a bit. Beer can have repercussions such as hangover, while it is hard to see such repercussions from "free speech". If software is free-as-in-beer, perhaps, the term is used to point to the less free long-term perspective. It is hard to invent a general rule how to use the terms, better to break it into parts and ask when they are used as synonyms.
    – user2362
    Jan 2, 2011 at 21:50
  • its got nothing to do with the hangover, its referring to the fact that the word free has two different meanings as in your free to do what you want, or here have a free beer.....
    – squareborg
    Jul 29, 2011 at 18:43
  • Great correspondence, thanks for sharing it! Jun 3, 2017 at 19:11

"Free as in free speech" vs "Free as in free beer" isn't a concept, it is an example of a concept. :-)

This example belongs to the GPL and is used to clarify the definition of "free" in the term "Free Software".

Free beer is gratis. It doesn't cost you anything. The term refers to the price of a product. This is not the intention of the word "free" in this context.

The intention is more like "free" in free speech, the liberty to say the things you want without getting censored.

  • could you explain from the basic words , that is "free beer" and "free speech"? Why they taken beer and speech as the example?
    – Renjith G
    Oct 20, 2010 at 3:05
  • There are no special reasons why this examples are used. The only one who can finally answer this question would be Richard Stallman, you can find his contact information there: stallman.org Could be an interesting answer g. For more about the phrase see: c2.com/cgi/wiki?FreeAsInBeer
    – echox
    Oct 20, 2010 at 18:15
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    Ok i will ask him and will post the reply from him asap.
    – Renjith G
    Oct 21, 2010 at 5:36
  • Yes. I got the reply and it is posted here in this forum in this link (EDIT: reposted as an answer here)
    – Renjith G
    Oct 22, 2010 at 6:46
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    @Renjith G: Those "beer" and "speech" are just examples that people (at least in the western world) get, because they reference commonly used expressions. People associate "free speech" with freedom or "freedom of speech", and "free beer" with taking benefit of something without paying.
    – vdboor
    Feb 28, 2011 at 13:15

In Polish, those are very easily distinguishable, as we have completely different words for the two concepts:

  • wolny represents the "free as in 'freedom'" (or 'free speech') concept

  • darmowy represents the concept of "free as in 'free beer'" (something you do not need to pay for)

  • Hungarian the same ("szabad" vs. "ingyen"). Kisses Brother! Jun 3, 2017 at 19:30


'Free' word used in the context of Free-speech. Free-speech itself is used very liberally as it's literal meaning could be quite misleading (esp to non-American). So to narrow it further take "Free-speech" as the one of the fundamental rights enjoyed by every US citizen as per US Constitution.

So the 'free' word in 'free software' stands that grand not only to the level of not paying for the software only.

I think everyone else has already accurately described - free as in beer concept. So I wouldn't repeat.

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