Free as in Free Beer

A Look into the Concept of Free Software

By Merlin Whitewolf

For the newcomer to the world of free/libre and open source software the term "free as in free beer" may seem a bit confusing at first. This is an attempt at a clear explanation. I've provided links within the article and at its conclusion for further reading on this subject.

Free Beer

Who but a friend gives you a beer? The guy at the pub expects payment. The guy at the store expects payment. The breweries and micro-breweries expect payment. Each of them has made a financial investment in order to bring you the beer, so expecting a return on the investment is their right. We can't expect them to go broke to supply us with beer, can we?

But a lack of monetary cost is not what is meant by the free in the phrase "free beer." This word has the meaning of freedom and liberty. It is the openness of open source. At you'll find links to the recipes for free beer, the labels for it and other helpful items and information. You may also purchase free beer. How can it be offered for sale and be free? The answer is simple.

You have the liberty - read freedom - to copy and use the recipe and share it with others. The label graphics are supplied, also, so you may label your bottles of beer. You are free to use and share these things. Thus, you are at liberty to make and share this beer. These quotes from the above site, "FREE BEER is a beer which is free in the sense of freedom, not in the sense of free beer" and "The recipe and brand of their beer is published under a Creative Commons license, which means anyone can use the recipe for pleasure or profit. The only catch: If you make money selling their unique beer, you have to give them credit and publish any changes you make to the recipe under a similar license." This offers an explanation of what 'free beer' is, if you understand the difference between lack of cost and freedom.

How does this relate to software? offers this explanation of free software ( -

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (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 improve the program and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

"A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission."

"When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like 'give away' or 'for free' because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom."

The concept here is simple - you are at liberty to use or improve F/LOSS programs or not, at your own choosing. You are free, as in 'free speech' to make your own choices. The software may be gratis, i.e. without monetary cost, or there may be a fee charged for it. The free part of F/LOSS is then not about the monetary costs, but about your liberty.

In Conclusion

When you see, or hear the statement "Free as in free beer" applied to software, it should be considered a statement about your right to choose. You are at liberty, i.e. free to choose, to use, distribute or change the software, so long as you share that liberty with everyone. No one may be denied this liberty. If anyone is denied, the freedom is lost.

Enjoy your freedom and remember to share it. Freedom/liberty is one of those things that increases when given away.

"There's no such thing as free lunch." - Robert A. Heinlein, quoted from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Nothing is without cost. What about gratis, you ask? Yes, even gratis has a cost. The developer who created the software that you receive without monetary cost has paid for the hardware that the software was developed on, used his/her valuable time in that development and provided a website from which the software and source code may be downloaded. Every piece of software ever written has been paid for by someone. Every download site has been paid for by someone. It is for help in the defraying of these costs that there are donation links on websites where software and operating systems are made available gratis.

Links for further reading: