Free as in Speech

About a year ago, I heard someone say, “Free as in speech, not as in beer.” (It was probably Jane Wells.) I think partly because I’m not an American and have never been a “bar” person, it took me a while to get the connection. Whoever said it aside, they were referring to the GPL (GNU Public License) which is what WordPress (the software behind this site) is licensed under.

If my take on “not as in beer” is correct, then it refers to the fact that the GPL does not mean (in terms of beer) that there is an open bar or the drinks are on the house. Whether that association is correct or not, the GPL does not grant that all software licensed under it is free of cost.

You may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, and you may at your option offer warranty protection in exchange for a fee. – GPLv2 (Note: For the purposes of this post, all further quotes reference the GPLv2.)

So, charging for the original copy & providing warranty (includes support) is perfectly acceptable under the GPL. For the most part, whenever people in the WordPress community start talking about the GPL, I find something else to do. The main reason for that is it’s only a matter of time before someone equates the GPL to free of cost. It’s discouraging to see an opinion expressed that sounds like the person has not taken the time to read the document they are expressing an opinion on. However, the case may be that they are confusing one part of the license to mean something other than what it does.


This doesn’t mean that the software is free, but that the license is free. If something is GPL, you cannot charge for the GPL license.

You may modify your copy or copies of the Program or any portion of it, thus forming a work based on the Program, and copy and distribute such modifications or work under the terms of…

Let’s suppose you have a GPL software product that you want to charge $99 for distribution and a 60 day warranty. The GPL is ok with that. What the GPL is not okay with is charging additional fees for permission to copy (eg. multi-use licenses), modify (developer license) or (re)distribute the software. It’s worth noting that a developer version which includes additional resources for developers is allowed. By process of elimination, I’ve concluded that the “free as in speech” refers to these freedoms that the license grants you once you have the software.

There are some in the WordPress community who feel that the GPL is anti-commercial. I don’t believe that’s true. I made my first open source contribution in 1989. But, until about two years ago, I made my living writing or modifying proprietary software (I did a four year stint of teaching others how to write proprietary software). In many instances, granting a right to copy the source of the software was a condition of being paid for writing the software. In cases where it wasn’t, I gave my clients the source code anyway. So, in fact, I have never written software where I didn’t give the client the source code.

From 1994 through to 2002, I ran a successful consulting business based on proprietary software. Among my clients were Digital Equipment (a proprietary giant from the 80s) and International Paper. I was the IT lead that launched StarChoice Television (now Shaw Direct).

For most of the last two years, I’ve been writing 100% GPL software. It took Andrea & I a while to find our groove. A business model that works with proprietary software isn’t necessarily going to work with open source software. Following the model that I used in my previous consulting business was not a stellar success. BUT, the fact that we’ve picked up a few bruises along the way and have learned to approach the business differently doesn’t make the GPL (or any other open source license) anti-commercial.

We could argue the advantages and disadvantages of the open source & proprietary software ’til we are all too old for it to matter. Some prefer working with proprietary platforms/development environments and others prefer open platforms. So, it’s an argument that can’t be won. BUT, if you need proprietary licenses in a development platform/environment where most of the development is openly licensed, you’re doing it wrong. The amount of cooperation that exists within the WordPress community far outweighs the costs of competing in a proprietary market.

As a closing note, I’d like to thank Triple-J & Ryan who both wrote posts earlier today where they talked about the GPL.