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More often than not to the questions that I have put up on Stack Overflow the answer that I received had the term "and free as in free beer" in it mostly in relation to free or Open source software.
How did the term come to be and what is its significance?

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i always thought it meant "free but with a catch", because no one gives out free beer without a catch. but apparently that's not exactly right... –  Kip Sep 15 '09 at 18:35
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@Kip: Sure they do, you must not be going to the right parties. –  Jeanne Pindar Sep 17 '09 at 16:53
    
It means that you have to be a highly skilled individual, one that can talk other people into buying the beer. ;-) –  Brian Knoblauch May 6 '10 at 12:47
    
Doesn't this belong on SO? –  badp Jul 29 '10 at 17:22

6 Answers 6

up vote 23 down vote accepted

From Wikipedia's article on Gratis versus Libre (specifically here):

In software development, where the cost of mass production is relatively small, it is common for developers to make software available at no cost. One of the early and basic forms of this model is called freeware. With freeware, software is licensed free of charge for regular use, the developer does not gain any monetary compensation.

With the advent of the free software movement, license schemes were created to give developers more freedom in terms of code sharing, commonly called open source or FOSS. As the English adjective "free" does not distinguish between "free of charge" and "liberty", the phrases "free as in beer" (gratis, freeware) and "free as in speech" (libre, open source) were adopted.

These phrases have become common, along with gratis and libre, in the software development and computer law fields for encapsulating this distinction.

Edit: According to this page (also worth a read), the idea was first used by rms in this essay.

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How does "beer" come into the picture here? –  Kevin Boyd Sep 15 '09 at 15:49
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Because free beer is awesome. –  gnostradamus Sep 15 '09 at 15:51
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It's just an arbitrary noun used to illustrate the difference between gratis and libre. It could just as easily have been "free as in Free Donuts!" –  Donut Sep 15 '09 at 15:52
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@AeonFlux: It's an example of gratis commonly used by Richard Stallman and the FSF. See here, for example: fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html –  Hilarious Comedy Pesto Sep 15 '09 at 15:54
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Beer > Donuts –  Alex Angas Sep 15 '09 at 15:54
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@Alex Angas: flagged as offensive. Donuts are the national bird of Canada. –  XMLbog Sep 15 '09 at 16:08
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@Welbog: What if it's a Canadian beer? –  gnostradamus Sep 15 '09 at 16:10
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@gnovice: I'm tempted to change my name to beer now... Stop giving me ideas! –  perbert Sep 15 '09 at 16:14
    
@spam: Owens Corning insulation. =P –  gnostradamus Sep 15 '09 at 16:19
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Free donuts are for before noon and free beer is for after noon. –  user27414 Sep 15 '09 at 16:20
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The free software foundation witter on endlessly about this. gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html –  MarkJ Sep 15 '09 at 16:54
    
i still don't get it –  Kip Sep 15 '09 at 18:28
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I still don't get it? what's the difference between gratis and libre? –  Kevin Boyd Sep 16 '09 at 14:42
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Gratis: Free, as in zero charge. Something that would normally cost money is being given to you for free. As in, "here, have a free (normally, not free) beer!" Libre: Free, as in Freedom. "The state of being free", or having liberty. –  Donut Sep 16 '09 at 14:55
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Free as in beer: Visual Studio Express. You can get it for free, and you can use it, but you can't see how it does things, can't change it, and likely can't make copies for other people. Free as in speech: Subversion. You can get the source code, hack it as you please, and distribute the original or hacked versions as you please. Free as in speech software is usually, but not necessarily, also free as in beer. I could sell you some free-as-in-speech software, but I can't prevent you from giving it away for free. –  David Thornley Sep 18 '09 at 14:53

In a nutshell, the word "free" has a couple of meanings and it's not always possible to tell in context which one the user meant. "Free as in beer" refers to the cost (i.e. money) of the software, while "free as in speech" refers to what you are allowed to do with the software.

From Wikipedia (Donut's link):

"Free as in beer" vs "Free as in speech"

In software development, where the cost of mass production is relatively small, it is common for developers to make software available at no cost. One of the early and basic forms of this model is called freeware. With freeware, software is licensed free of charge for regular use, the developer does not gain any monetary compensation.

With the advent of the free software movement, license schemes were created to give developers more freedom in terms of code sharing, commonly called open source or FOSS. As the English adjective "free" does not distinguish between "free of charge" and "liberty", the phrases "free as in beer" (gratis, freeware) and "free as in speech" (libre, open source) were adopted.

These phrases have become common, along with gratis and libre, in the software development and computer law fields for encapsulating this distinction.

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FYI When I wrote my answer, the sum total of Donut's answer was "see here" with a link to the Wikipedia article. I copied the relevant portion of the article into my answer and expanded on it a little. Donut did the same to his answer at the same time. –  Graeme Perrow Sep 15 '09 at 15:54

Free beer is something someone gives you to enjoy. It does not imply "freedom". Free speech is a right and a freedom we enjoy. So when comparing free software, Free as in Beer refers to software that someone is letting you use for free, where free as in speech implies that the software is free for all to use, modify etc.

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  • Free as in "free beer" means you do not have to pay any money to acquire, install and use the software. But you may not be allowed to freely copy, distribute or change it. EDIT: A great example is the Microsoft .NET framework. It's free to download, use, and redistribute, you can even see the source, but you can't change it.
  • "Free software" is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. You may actually pay to get a copy in a convenient form - like a Linux distro. EDIT: There are often limits on this freedom. You may not be free to change the software and then treat the new version as your own property - any derived works might have to be open source if distributed to others. It depends on the licence.
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It is a really annoying term, as I got it backwards for some years. The short version of the full rant is I'd heard of the GPL beer earlier, and RMS distributes lots of his rants under a no-modifications license, so I thought free beer was the open source/free software one, and free speech was the no cost, but unable to modify one.

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I agree it is annoying. Particularly since the "freedom" is incomplete in many cases. Long live BSD, down with GPL (just IMHO) –  MarkJ Sep 16 '09 at 21:39
    
There's no such thing as perfect freedom for everybody. Should person A be free to deny person B some freedom? Long ago most of us settled the question of whether we should be free to own or become a slave. Now there's the question of whether a free software license should permit somebody to take somebody else's code and make it non-free. (My answer: It depends.) –  David Thornley Sep 18 '09 at 15:01
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David: I'm not talking about perfect freedom, I'm complaining that the analogies "free as in {speech,beer}" are confusing and so shouldn't be used. –  TRS-80 Sep 19 '09 at 4:54

Gratis is what you have in North Korea. Libre is what you have in Nevada. (Somewhat)

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