What Does *Free/Libre/Open* Mean?

Snowdrift.coop supports public goods projects that respect everyone’s freedoms to access, use, study, change, and share. How can we talk concisely about these types of works?

Confusion around the English word “free”

In English, “free” often means free of charge; but, in other contexts, “free” means freedom. To clarify, some people say “free as in speech, not free as in beer” or simply “free as in freedom”.

Besides the confusion in talking, the term “free software” is ineffective for searching as well. “Free culture” is only slightly better. Terms like “software freedom” and “cultural freedom” offer improved clarity but only work in certain grammatical contexts.

“Libre” to clarify freedom

Borrowing from Romance languages, the adjective libre (as in liberty) contrasts with gratis (zero price). For example, the most popular free-as-in-freedom office/productivity suite is called LibreOffice. At this time, “libre” remains mostly foreign to the English-speaking world.

“Free/libre” vs “open”

The term open emphasizes access, transparency, and inclusive collaboration. We value these qualities. We care about not only the freedoms people have with products but also about welcoming and supportive communities with open participation.

On its own, “open” can be vague. Open Access works may have restrictions on use, modification, or sharing. Today we see widespread open-washing where the term “open” gets thrown around to sound nice while the products remain restricted. The now-common term “Open Source” also has a problematic software-centric framing1 and focuses mainly on the development process rather than on the overall ethics of a project.

“Open” tends to complement rather than replace “free/libre”. Freedom on its own doesn’t emphasize collaboration, participation, or transparency. Openness on its own does not necessarily bring freedom (especially when “open” refers only the source and not to the final product). Freedom can also cover the freedom to have privacy, and the term “open” doesn’t address that concern at all. At Snowdrift.coop, we care about both open participation and essential liberties.

Competing terms and organizations

The software world has had long-running, contentious debates about these terms. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) and the Free Software Foundation (FSF)2 have nearly synonymous criteria for their respective software definitions, but they have distinct political perspectives. The OSI emphasizes the practical and technical benefits of collaborative development (including within corporations that make proprietary software products for end users), while the FSF focuses on the ethics of freedom and liberty (and argues that all proprietary software is unethical).

In working to appeal to business interests, the OSI has a history of actively downplaying the ethical philosophies espoused by the FSF. So, the FSF asks people to avoid the terms “open” and “open source”.3

At Snowdrift.coop, we support the FSF’s mission to rid the world of proprietary software, but we’re not convinced about the tactic of demonizing the term “open”. We focus on providing a better economy for abundant goods in order to remove the economic excuse for proprietary restrictions.

Beyond software, these competing terms have carried over into other media with orgs like Open Knowledge. Their “Open Definition” explicitly acknowledges “Free/Libre” as synonymous and aligned.4 A great number of other competing definitions make use of the word “open” in various ways.^[Uses of these terms fall all over the spectrum. The term “Open Educational Resources” (OER) has gained wide recognition, but many different institutions claim definitions that range from entirely free/libre to anything accessible at no charge but otherwise restricted. The relatively obscure term “open-by-rule” implies freedom, equality, and openness; and it goes beyond the license itself towards a more ethical and honorable overall environment. The “Open Content” definition covers all the free/libre values pretty well with just a different framing.


As no single choice covers all our values clearly, the best solution acknowledges all the terms via the combination free/libre/open or FLO. We see this commonly used as part of the acronym FLOSS: Free/Libre Open Source Software. Of course, besides software, Snowdrift.coop supports art, music, education, science, and more. So, “FLO” fits our purposes better than any alternative term.5

Besides being inclusive, “FLO” provides value as a novel term. As common words, “Free” and “Open” have many interpretations in different contexts. No attempt to prescribe strict use of those terms will ever succeed. In contrast, “FLO” has no meaning other than the one we intend.6

A poetic interpretation of FLO emphasizes the flow of ideas, culture, creativity, and liberties that are possible when we remove artificial restrictions and encourage cooperation.^[We noticed only after we’d written it that our slogan at the time, “clearing the path to a Free/Libre/Open world”, actually provides the full acronym FLOW, which seems appropriate although perhaps a little too cutesy to reference often. FLOW could also be FLO Work(s), and while that makes sense, we’ve found it grammatically odd in context. Joseph Potvin independently discovered and embraced this acronym of FLO Works as a project with the OSI: the FLOW syllabus.

Given the need for clarification in any case, if using “FLO” or “free/libre/open” causes people to ask what we mean, then we have a chance to provide our answer.7

Note: for further clarity about wordings here at Snowdrift.coop, see our terminology page.

Other alternative terms

Various people have suggested terms referencing “public” as in “public software” or “commons” as in the term “digital commons” or the organization Creative Commons. These terms have their own challenges with clarity and grammatical flexibility. “Public” and “commons” are best applied to the economic condition of products and do not fully substitute for the value of the term “FLO”.

How to recognize FLO works

The simplest guarantee: Everything on Snowdrift.coop is FLO. For clarity about what does or doesn’t meet the definition of FLO, see our page Why Only Free/Libre/Open Projects.

Other reliable all-FLO collections exist. Unlike most software-centric projects, Debian GNU/Linux official packages are all strictly FLO, even when it comes to non-software items,8.

For software, the FSF has a Free Software Directory and Wikipedia (which is itself FLO) has many lists of software on appropriate category pages, often (but not always) with clear indications of proprietary vs FLO.9 Prism-break.org is one guide to privacy- and freedom-respecting software and services specifically for internet/communications purposes where suggestions are fully FLO whenever possible. Outside of software, some attempts at directories have been made such as the Free & Open Works wiki (archive.org link), but mostly the way to find things is to search for common licenses such as CC-BY and CC-BY-SA through services like Flickr or other image search or audio/video search options.

When encountering things out in the world, “free” usually means only price, so look for clarifying statements such as “free as in freedom” or “free/libre”. Resources called “open” and “open source” are often legitimately FLO but can also be harder to verify without checking the exact license. Among the many licenses, it may help to recognize the most common FLO ones. For software the most common FLO licenses are probably MIT and GPL (also popular: Apache, BSD, AGPL). For other works, CC0, CC-BY, and CC-BY-SA are the three FLO options from Creative Commons. See our license discussion for more information.

  1. “Source” usually refers to “source code” rather than other sorts of source for other works. Also quite unfortunately, “software” has come to refer only to executable computer programs rather than anything soft, i.e. the patterns of information in contrast to the hardware that stores the patterns.

  2. The Free Software Foundation would be better renamed as the “Software Freedom Foundation” or the “Foundation for Software Freedom”

  3. See the gnu.org article Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software

  4. Note that Snowdrift.coop co-founder Aaron Wolf was on the Open Definition committee which drafted the updated version of the definition then approved by the Open Knowledge community.

  5. The FSF agrees on “FLO” and “FLOSS” as the best neutral terms, but they still complain that even acknowledging the term “open” downplays their message of freedom. We do not agree with that zero-sum view of the situation. Celebrating openness need not detract from our focus on freedom. We don’t use a combined term in order to stay neutral. We inclusively affirm both the values of openness and of freedom.

  6. The novelty and searchability of “Open Source” is a significant reason that it achieved greater adoption than “Free”.

  7. For a really thorough discussion of the terminology, history, and specifications about FLO and related terms, see A Free, Libre, Open Glossary.

  8. The Debian Free Software Guidelines are the original source for the nearly identical Open Source Definition.

  9. Both the FSF and Wikipedia directories are incomplete and welcome volunteers to assist in improving them. Although other directories exist, the FSF and Wikipedia directories are the only ones we know of that are both robust and are themselves fully FLO. A proprietary directory of note is alternativeto.net which lists both FLO and proprietary software but with the term “Open Source” for FLO and the term “Free” to mean free-of-charge-but-proprietary.