When reading questions and answers on different stack exchange sites related to software, there seems to be a difference between free and gratis.

Could you please elaborate on what the difference between these two terms are?

And is gratis a commonly used term in English?

  • 1
    I've hardly ever heard gratis in everyday speech: Here's some evidence from Ngrams: books.google.com/ngrams/…. In answer to your question, "gratis" would mean "free of charge"
    – 13509
    Jul 19, 2015 at 15:59
  • Still that is the most common tag at softwarerecs.stackexchange.com, not free...
    – holroy
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:02
  • I was answering your second question - "is it commonly used in english"
    – 13509
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:02
  • I know the general meaning, but wondering about the difference of these terms, if any. In Norwegian we also have gratis as a word, and use that instead of the translation of free, when talking about something being free of charge. But that is a digression.
    – holroy
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:09
  • 2
    See also this, which has the third most upvotes of any question on ELL. Jul 19, 2015 at 16:29

1 Answer 1


Like many other English words, the word "free" has several overlapping meanings, and two of those meanings turn out to be problematic when discussing software. In particular, "this software is free" could mean:

  • free as in free beer: "this software costs no money to use"; or
  • free as in free speech: "this software has few or no restrictions on how it may be used"

To remove the ambiguity, some people write "gratis software" to mean the first kind (costs no money), and "free software" to mean the second kind (has few or no restrictions).

Some examples:

  • Neither gratis nor free software: Most commercial software falls into this category. If you want Microsoft Office, you must both pay money for it, and agree to a lot of restrictions on how you can use the software. For example, you are not allowed to edit the internal workings of Microsoft Office to make it behave differently, fix a bug, et cetera.

  • Gratis, but not free software: Adobe Reader is available without charge, but if you want to use it you must agree to a number of restrictions on how you use it. For example, you are allowed to run the software. But you are not allowed to package it up and sell it as something else to another person.

  • Free and gratis software: The Blender Game Engine is the building block of many games. You can use Blender at no charge, and you are only minimally restricted in how you use Blender or what you do with it.

Gratis is not otherwise an everyday word in English, outside of specialized distinctions like this one.

  • What kind of restrictions are we talking about here?
    – holroy
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:19
  • For example, the software might permit you to run it, but not to modify it (change how it works), redistribute it (give it to other people), sell it (charge other people money), etc. Jul 19, 2015 at 16:21
  • Do you imply that gratis software is possible to resell? That sounds wrong...
    – holroy
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:23
  • 1
    No, I'm saying that whether software is gratis is independent of whether it's unencumbered by restrictions. Jul 19, 2015 at 16:24
  • 1
    Correct. In this context, gratis refers only to whether software costs money or not. Free refers to whether it has restrictions on how you can use it. Jul 19, 2015 at 16:31

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