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. — Richard Stallman

Translating free to my language (Ukrainian), generates a huge variety of different terms, including (I apologize for my lame translation back to English) independent, unleashed, loose, at no cost (of manufacture), at no price (for a buyer), at no extra fees/taxes, useless, fired (from a job), or done (completed a work).

What is actually the difference between the two meanings in the phrase above, and how should I understand the term of "free software"?

I'm aware you can't fire a beer from a job, :) but there are still too many overlapping meanings.

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    Translating free to my language (Ukrainian), generates a huge variety of different terms... I'm sure there's a lot of English words that would do that, like pin, stand, mean, and right, to name but a few. I mean, when a word has several diverse meanings in a dictionary, it stands to reason that it would be hard to pin down a single definition in another language, right? – J.R. Feb 14 '13 at 9:20
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    If you're familiar with Russian, then it's the difference between words "свободная" and "бесплатная". Free software should be understood with the meaning of former. – Martin Green Feb 14 '13 at 11:49
  • @J.R. Exactly. I have no doubt about "free as beer", as it is simply "at zero cost", but it's much harder to find an exact meaning for "free as speech", even in my language. – bytebuster Feb 14 '13 at 12:23
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    I can take a stab at it: "Free" in the sense of "free speech" means "freedom to exercise as you see fit without fear of reprisal from an oppressive government." A country with a "free press," then, can criticize its leaders in the newspaper without fear of government retaliation. It's hard to encapsulate that concept with a single word, and it's often misunderstood or mischaracterized, like when a teenager laments, "Why can't I drink? Isn't this a free country?" Free country doesn't quite mean the same thing as free to do anything I want, but it does convey a sense of automony and liberty. – J.R. Feb 14 '13 at 12:31
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    @bytebuster: I don't know if there's a synonym for this meaning of the word free, it means "with certain freedoms" – in this case, these four freedoms – J.R. Feb 15 '13 at 8:02

11 Answers 11


"Free software" as used by the Free Software Foundation is a difficult term to translate into many languages, and they even admit as much. I couldn't find the exact page where they do with a quick look around their web site, but I know I've seen it there.

It can mean either software that is offered free of charge, or software which comes with certain freedoms (for the user). The difference is between free of charge and freedom.

Like the author says, think of "free beer" versus "free speech". "Free speech" is not generally taken to mean speech that is made available at no cost, and "free beer" is not generally taken to mean beer for which you receive the exact recipe, the right to change it (or not) and hand out or sell your own.

Note that different organizations have slightly different meanings for "free software" even when referring to freedom. The general gist, however, largely remains the same.

You sometimes see "free software" when used this way written with a capitalized Free (Free software) to emphasize the difference from free-as-in-at-no-monetary-cost.

To quote the FSF (my emphasis):

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.”

It's also worth noting that in this specific context, even the FSF does go as far as to actually say that selling free software is OK.


The way I understand it:

"Free as in beer" translates to gratis

given or done for nothing; free

"Free as in speech" translates to liberty

the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s behaviour or political views

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    But the pub owner always makes me pay for beer? – Konerak Feb 14 '13 at 10:53
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    But when somebody the beer is free, they doesn't usually mean that the beer has freedom of distribution. – Joe Z. Feb 14 '13 at 13:38
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    To stick with the Latin, it's usually described as gratis versus libre. – Daniel Feb 14 '13 at 15:51
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    @Daniel Libre is not a Latin word. Liber is. – Federico Poloni Feb 24 '17 at 20:27

The Stallman sort of “free” software is intended to mean software that it is:

  • unfettered
  • unrestricted
  • unencumbered
  • changeable / hackable / modifiable

Opinions vary, but some would also argue that “free” software also means software that is:

  • non-proprietary
  • non-private
  • unpatented / unpatentable

In contrast, the sort of “free” software you find available for “free” download is software that:

  • costs nothing
  • complementary
  • uncharged

Most native speakers of English today, when they hear some construct, “free XYZZY”, they think of this as indicative that XYZZY is free of charge, not free of entanglements. Free admission is therefore by default taken to mean a cheap date, not one that anyone can attend.

This causes problems when English speakers heard of so-called “free” universities, such as the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam or the Freie Universität of Berlin, which have the audacity to charge tuition. It seems like a bad bait-and-switch joke.

Consider the difference here:

  • Do you have any free rooms?
  • Do you have any rooms free?

The second of those is clear, but the first is ambiguous.

Free translations and free thinkers aside, it is probably best to avoid any use of free that risks being misunderstood or even worse, taken as a sort of bait-and-switch gotcha by somebody who is trying to play word games.

Like ancient Latin, modern Spanish has no such problem here with overloading the way the Germanic languages sometimes can, for no one would ever confuse gratis with libre, nor vice versa. If those “foreign” words fit well in your mouth — and in your listeners’ ears — then go ahead and use whichever of the two you mean.

You might also study the annotated Open Source definition. Here, “open” mostly corresponds to libre, although there is also the aspect of its having gratis redistribution. Still, it is a lot better than risking being misunderstood, which lamentably or not, “free software” always does.

Sometimes you just have to use more words to be clear: after all, there’s no such thing as a free hot lunch.


Wikipedia actually elaborates on this fairly well, under its entry for free software:

Free software, software libre or libre software is software that respects the freedom of computer users (private individuals, as well as organizations and companies), by putting the users first and granting them freedom and control in running and adapting their computing and data-processing to their needs; as well as allowing them the freedom to be able to actively cooperate with any users and developers of their choice.

These goals of Free Software are reached by granting the following freedom-rights: users are free to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software; these freedoms are explicitly granted and not suppressed (as is the case with proprietary software). Thus, free software is a matter of liberty, not price: as an example, free software always guarantees the freedom rights to study and modify software, by the availability of the source code.

When someone hears the term free software, one would normally assume that means at no cost. However, in the context of the free software movement, the term is meant to also convey "freedom from restrictions" (hence the word free is being used more like "free speech," as opposed to "free beer"). Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to think about those sometimes very lengthy license agreements that are presented to a user before installation of a software program. In that context, free software would have far fewer restrictions than commercial software.


Free beer is beer you don’t pay for. Free software, in the sense that the writer is using it, means software that is not subject to any restrictions.

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    Can you please elaborate? No restrictions for use means I'm not required to pay for it, correct? – bytebuster Feb 14 '13 at 8:38
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    Actually, GNU Free software is subject to restrictions. Look at the GPL. It has quite a number of restrictions, meant to ensure that others enjoy the same benefits of the free software as well. – a CVn Feb 14 '13 at 8:43
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    @Michael Kjörling. I'm sure you're right, but I have no idea what GNU Free software and GPL are, and don’t think I need to in order to answer the question. Free in the sense in which the writer is using it means, in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, ‘Not impeded, restrained, or restricted in actions, activity, or movement.’ – Barrie England Feb 14 '13 at 8:51
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    @Michael Kjörling. My reply was a general one. Yours was clearly provided with more specialised knowledge, and I trust that one will complement the other. – Barrie England Feb 14 '13 at 8:58
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    The truth is that you do need to know about the history and culture associated with X (as well as information about the society in which the utterance is being made) to know what people mean when they say "free X." This is the case for software, speech, or anything else. Assuming everyone agrees about what limits may be applied to freedom is a serious anthropological mistake (and in this case a linguistic one), as well as a creeping danger to everyone's freedom. Assuming students know what is unsaid in a language they have often not nearly mastered is a grave pedagogical error. – Eliah Kagan Mar 22 '13 at 14:35

Free as in free beer

Socially I have led various usergroups in my community for techs and devs, and at some of them we've offered beer, sodas, and pizza. There was no requirement, no purchase, just a friendly offer for you to come and have some beer that I provided. It was my beer, but I was welcome to share it with whoever came along (most software repositories that you use are "free beer" in that there is no encumbrance with the software, you just have to show up to get it).

We would possibly also use the words gratis or gift or maybe the phrase at no price (and sometimes at no cost when a company releases it) to describe this "free" (but note that the legalities of calling such a thing a gift in most English businesses would cause problems, so don't refer to it that way, just understand it that way).

All you were given was the beer, and it was not given with the intent of making you listen to a sales-pitch (sometimes people do this, which is also an occasion for free beer) or of making you contribute back. It was an enticement.

As others have pointed out, I in no way gave others the liberty or capacity to resell the beers, to brew their own with a recipe (I didn't even have the recipe) or any other such "allowance". But so long as you showed up and socialized, the beer was free for the asking.

This is "free as in free beer".

Free as in free speech

In the US we have our nearly world-renowned "First Amendment" which simply states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So how is software also like free speech?

There is no way in this day and age for someone to stop you from writing software if you want to, so long as you can achieve the capacity of a computer to run an O/S on. Because of the "free beer" Linux and the related distros, you're able to run an operating system that affords you all the capacity to write software. A computer can now be had for less than $300 in the US, and similar amounts in the rest of the world, so they are not considered overly priced.

Because you have the tools (a lot from "free beer"), no one can restrict your right as a reasoning human being from writing software. There may be limitations on how you distribute it, or how it's used (you can write viruses all day long, but using them may land you in jail. The counterpoint is you may protest in a public place, but the police may arrest you for obstruction if you have created a harmful situation), but there is no limitation on how you may create software.

It is as much your right as is your right to free speech.

In other places we might call this liberty or freedom or not restricted.

But just as it is highly unwise to brandish a rifle and scream that you want to kill the leader of your country (which is not considered free speech), there are some moral restrictions to software authorship that the community or the law may not be happy with. So when I say "not restricted" please bear this in mind.


Although the term "free software" has some ambiguity, the context of the sentence should also be taken into consideration.

The quotes

... free as in free speech, not as in free beer. — Richard Stallman

Coming from the founder of Free Software Foundation, should be interpreted in such a context.

A better word for term 'free software' would be libre software, which according to the Wikipedia article

is software that respects the freedom of computer users (private individuals, as well as organizations and companies), by putting the users first and granting them freedom and control in running and adapting their computing and data-processing to their needs; as well as allowing them the freedom to be able to actively cooperate with any users and developers of their choice.

So simply "Free software" translates to like this.

Free software is software that anyone may run, share, and change, at any time, for any reason.

That is

  1. if you are unsatisfied with a free software, you may change it to meet your needs
  2. You can distribute the software with your anyone for no/any cost, even if you did paid (or not) for the software

    • with the understanding that the person who you distribute to has the same level of freedom over the software

Also free software can be distributed at any cost. Also you can distribute the application which was paid at no cost to others because you are free to do so.


How is anyone making this difficult? Free beer means "price is zero"; free speech means "freedom of speech" (i.e., not controlled).

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    That much is obvious. But the O.P. is asking about neither free speech nor free beer, and the O.P. is also asking for help in translating the word free in the context of free software. Given that the question centers on an entire philosophy, I think there's more to be said here than maybe first meets the eye. I don't think anyone here has said this is difficult, but there are some interesting nuances to the question that you've left unaddressed. – J.R. Feb 15 '13 at 7:59

I'm a Ukrainian software developer living in an English-speaking country, so let me take a stab:

Consider phrase "facility with free access" vs. "facility with restricted access"

The facility in question (e.g. parking) could be a normal unregulated facility (not restricted to, say, CIA employees only) and you are free to access it, provided you pay the parking fee.

This facility is "free of access restrictions" but not "free of charge".

As you can see, the word "free" alone is ambiguous even in English, and conveying its precise meaning in context requires qualifying it with an object (free OF WHAT).

Therefore, if I were to translate "free software" into Ukrainian, I would say "software with unrestricted usage rights" ("програмне забезпечення з необмеженим правом користування")

However, in actual life, free software licenses do not actually give the user truly unrestricted usage rights. In this sense, it is similar to "free speech", which, even in a freest society, is at best only almost unrestricted, and usually still partially restricted.

So, a legally defensible translation would be something like "software with partially unrestricted usage rights" ("програмне забезпечення з частково необмеженим правом користування"). A more idiomatic translation could be "software with partially lifted restrictions" ("програмне забезпечення з частково знятими обмеженнями")

I must admit, defined this way Free Software looses some of its luster, but that's the nature of the word "free" -- it just does not hold water under any serious scrutiny.


Free (as in beer) equates to the at no price (for a buyer) definition.

Free (as in speech) in the FOSS context is probably closest to the independent definition. From the GNU page: users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Proprietary software does not allow you to copy, distribute, study, or change it, due to it usually only being available in binary format, because of restrictions placed on it by vendors, etc, etc.


It's worth nothing that many native speakers find the term Free beer confusing, and Free as in beer even more confusing as there were no expressions about free beer other than this (that I know of), so the explanation doesn't tell you much. Even though I already knew what free software was, the first time I heard this I had to ask "What is free beer?"

It does recall the expression there's no such thing as a free lunch (US, means "a person who buys you lunch wants something from you"), but that's not necessarily a well-known expression outside the US, and it misdirects you to think about the way in which you will eventually have to pay for the "free" lunch.

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