I saw a question about the categorization of "free software", assumed that the author means "free as beer" and answered it. The author commented that he meant to ask about the "free as speech" meaning and edited his question. He actually had linked "free software" to a definition, but I admit that I did not follow the link before answering.

I admit this could have been avoided if I had clicked the link. But from my experience, many people will write a new answer without even bothering to read the question body, much less clicking on links. Also, we will surely get future questions where the author does not provide any way to recognize his meaning at all. So the question stands.

So I failed to recognize the dichotomy, working from the first meaning in my mind. And this lead to wasted time for me to write the answer, and for him and others to read through it and take an action.

Can we do something to prevent these confusions happening? If we see a question which needs different answers under the two meanings, but does not specify which one was meant, how should the community react?

Putting on hold as "unclear" would be the prescribed way to deal with it, but it's very offputting to new users, who are more likely to disappear forever when their question is closed than to edit it. Maybe comment on the question and abstain from answering? In that case, what do we do when people unaware of this policy answer nevertheless?

Maybe we can also create tags to clear that up? If so, which tags would be appropriate for the difference? I can't come up with a good solution, because and will be applicable to the majority of question on the site and so many people will use it when the distinction is unimportant. And and are a bit too cumbersome.

  • I agree this confusion surely will arise. I had instantly not specified the question enough, thinking the link to the Free Software Definition would be enough. Insofar this is good that we hit this problem in Beta, as I think if the site is launched, many users will not even be aware that two meanings to the word free exist in this context. I have no solution to this problem currently, that's why only a comment, not an answer.
    – Mnementh
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 10:18
  • I suggested an edit to clarify the free as in free speech but it was denied as superfluous.. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 11:01
  • @ratchetfreak By me no less, while I'm proposing exactly that below. I'm still getting my bearings for this site, and what I think is a good idea and what isn't can vary from moment to moment. Sorry for being a bit of a hypocrite here, and you having been at the receiving and of that.
    – Martijn
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 11:06
  • @Martijn and OP made a similar edit later anyway... Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 11:07

4 Answers 4


In the expression free software, free means “free as in speech”. The term for software that's “free as in beer” is freeware.

Some people don't know the distinction, so in general it's good to ask people to be explicit. However…

This site is about open source. Freeware is off-topic here, only free software.

The default assumption when reading a question should always be that it's about the topic of the site. When someone asks about cleaning Windows on Super User, assume that it's about getting rid of malware, not about removing stains on glass. When someone asks about curing ham on Cooking, assume that it's about preserving the meat of a dead pig, not about the health of the pig. When someone asks about free software on Open Source, assume that it's about free/libre/open-source software, not about gratis software.

The question was perfectly clear in its original form.

  • Good points and examples with the terminology. Makes perfect sense :)
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 17:43

I have no good solution.

I have a bad solution though. That is aggressively editing any question with the term free in it to include a qualifier.

Free-as-in-beer could be qualified as free (gratis) or for free.

Free-as-in-speech could be qualified as free/libre or free as in freedom or free as in speech (if we must).

If we're not sure what the asker means, a clarification request should be posted as a comment.

I think this is a bad solution because

  • It might take a fair amount of work
  • Whenever I talk about free-as-in-speech or free-as-in-freedom software I feel like a civil liberties crusader from the 60's. Whenever I talk about free/libre I feel like a Cuban rebel attempting to overthrow capitalism. It all feels a bit childish and silly.
  • Gratis sounds odd to my (non-native) ear.

I think this is still better than no solution, because the inherent ambiguity is a greater problem, and unfortunately we're stuck with the terminology we have. Trying to invent our own competing terminology would only add to the confusion.

If anyone has something better, I'm all ears.

As an possible reference to point people to, I just asked What is the difference between free as in beer and free as in speech? which could be used as a question with a canonical answer.

  • I believe that edits that add such a qualifier should be allowed though, I suggested such an edit that would have stopped the confusion but was denied by you and Zizouz212. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 11:05
  • @ratchetfreak A separate question? I'd love to show my reasoning there! :)
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 12:12
  • @Zizouz212 I'm on chat if you want to explain yourself Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 12:19
  • I can confirm that gratis sounds odd to most native ears too, and is even an unknown word to many. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:53
  • 2
    On Software Recommendations, the 'gratis' tag works fine (it’s the second most popular tag currently).
    – unor
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 17:45

This is something where you can try, and try, and try even more, but it won't come out perfect. However, it's a major confusion that we need to sort out, fast. Here's what I would suggest:

  • Advertise in the help centre and tour page that there is a thing called "free/libre software"
  • See if we can make a popup (similar to code popups on Stack Overflow), that finds the word "Free" in the body, and provides recommendations to specify the meaning.

Also, to suggested edits reviewers, acknowledge these posts and understand that these can add to the posts. Generally, if they are confusions in the comments, please edit to specify these meanings.


Now, we have tags and .


Use this tag for free software, defined as computer software that gives users the freedom to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, modify, and distribute the original software and the adapted versions. (consider free as in freedom ; don't confuse with freeware)

emphasize by me

Also visit tag info.


Questions about freeware, a computer software that is available for use at no monetary cost, which may have restrictions such as redistribution prohibited, and for which source code is not available.

Also visit tag info which clarifies don't confuse with

  • 1
    This is great and all, but I don't exactly see how this will solve problems with the question bodies themselves.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 17:08

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