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The English adjective free is commonly used in one of two meanings: "for zero price" (gratis) and "with little or no restriction" (libre). This ambiguity of free can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.

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The terms gratis and libre may be used to categorise intellectual property, particularly computer programs, according to the licenses and legal restrictions that cover them, in the free software and open source communities, as well as the broader free culture movement. For example, they are used to distinguish freeware (software gratis) from free software (software libre).

Richard Stallman summarised the difference in a slogan: "Think free as in free speech, not free beer."

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 free and open-source software (called FLOSS, FOSS, or F/OSS). As the English adjective free does not distinguish between "for zero price" and "liberty", the phrases "free as in free beer" (gratis, freeware) and "free as in free speech" (libre, free software) were adopted. Many in the free software movement feel strongly about the freedom to use the software, make modifications, etc., whether or not this freely usable software is to be exchanged for money. Therefore, this distinction became important.

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