The difference between “gratis” and “libre”: no small beer

In an article that I read from Wikipedia called “Gratis versus libre” (Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use andPrivacy Policy. ), Richard Stallman, the free software pioneer and campaigner, stated, in regard to the difference between “gratis” (given away free, all rights reserved or many of them) and “libre” (free to use, adapt, change, re-share and most significantly, improve):

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.”

The concept of a free beer got me thinking that I could extend the analogy. Thus:

If you give away some free beer at a festival or a meeting then it does not involve a cost. The development of the product and everything involved in its process has nothing to do with any input that you may have. You are therefore merely a consumer and in this particular case you have received the glass of beer free and not at any monetary cost or indebtedness on your part.

If, on the other hand, you allow anyone who receives the beer to have it tested, to change it and maybe do some research that might improve it, then you are allowing for changes that may (or may not) be significant to others now and in the future.

The significance, as Stallman puts it in his statement, is huge.

There used to be a saying “give a person a fish and they can eat for one day, teach them to fish and they can eat forever”. This is exactly the difference between giving the beer away and holding allrights to it  (gratis) and allowing the beer to be changed, improved upon (hopefully with attribution) which is libre.

In a world of problems where any developments can be significant to our future we need a better beer and we can’t afford to accept that our beer is the ultimate frothy drink. Libre is so much more powerful than gratis!

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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3 Responses to The difference between “gratis” and “libre”: no small beer

  1. Ha, I love how you turn the familiar phrase on its head 🙂 Free (gratis) beer can also be free(dom) beer after all…


  2. Very nice, Malcolm! I guess beer would be libre if we allow others to change it and then have it be under the same brand name! I completely agree–I used to think of open as in mainly gratis (I started off being interested in this topic mostly in the sense of open access publishing), but now I see that that is just a very small part of openness!

    I just came across this site by another participant in Why Open?: It’s got a lot of things about libre on it, so I thought you might be interested!


  3. jeannettemelee says:

    Agree with the previous two comments. Great updating of the saying!

    The one thing that I would say is that the you changes and therefore the responsibilities and privileges may change. If you, person A, receive free beer, then Person A was not involved in the cost of production and therefore may not feel indebted, especially as you, Malcolm, describe it. Person A may or may not care that the free beer is gratis & libre. However, if you, Person B, gives away free beer, then Person B should get to determine if the beer is gratis, libre, or gratis & libre.

    One of the interesting developments in drug patents is that the governments of India & Brazil favor generic drugs & drug makers because they have argued the patented alternative is too expensive and restrictive. India has revoked patents and Brazil has broken patents. From their perspective, as the receiver for their nation, their populations will benefit from low-cost drugs. It is a situation where the receiver operates from the place of a public good.

    My question: should public or universal good always outweigh restrictions and/or cost? Does Person A’s position change if the product in question can be perceived as a public good, so that even though Person A was not involved in production, Person A feels as if Person A has as much right to determine whether the product is gratis, libre, or gratis & libre as Person B who has borne the cost of production?

    From any perspective, we are always weighing restrictions and cost.


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