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For other uses, see Libre (disambiguation).

Libre /ˈlbrə/ is a loan word in English borrowed from French. As it does in that language, "libre" in English denotes "the state of being free", as in "having freedom" or "liberty".

From the mid-1990s onward,[1] libre became increasingly used to distinguish "free" as in freedom from "free" as in free of charge (the gratis versus libre distinction). For example, the distinction is made in the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), free culture, open knowledge and libre knowledge communities. An adage of the free software movement that explains this difference reads:

"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."
  —Richard Stallman[2]

In these contexts, libre encompasses the essential freedoms defined in the free software definition, and is used to describe works which may be used, modified, copied and shared without permission from the copyright holder. Examples of terms that include the adjective libre: libre software, FLOSS, libre knowledge and libre cultural works. Public copyright licenses that guarantee these freedoms ("libre licences") often require attribution for contributors and sometimes include copyleft terms that ensure these essential freedoms remain in future derivative works. Works that are in the public domain are also considered libre.[3][4]

The word "libre" has been recommended as a substitute for "free" when the "freedom" sense is intended (not the gratis sense), and for "open" when the essential freedoms apply.[5]

Non-libre licences (sometimes called proprietary licences) are those which deny users at least one of the essential freedoms. For example, licences that forbid commercial use or derivative works are non-libre.


Libre comes from the Latin word līber, via the French libre; it shares that root with liberty. It denotes "the state of being free", as in "having freedom" or "liberty". The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes libre as obsolete,[6] but the word has come back into limited use.[7] Its primary use in English is to distinguish the two meanings of free: free as in freedom and free as in free of charge.


Although the use of libre in English for this meaning is a relatively recent one, the concept of works that are free of permission restrictions is as old as print itself. The Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest dated printed book, includes the sentence:

Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11th May, AD 868][8]

The use of libre in English to describe free software dates back at least to 1995.[1] The term software libre has since been used by the European Commission.[9] However, the concept of libre licensing existed well before the term was coined.

The first libre definition was the free software definition published by the Free Software Foundation in 1986. Although limited to software, its four freedoms effectively identified those freedoms required for all libre works and the free culture and libre knowledge movements have used very similar freedoms in their definitions of free content and libre knowledge.[10]

In 1994,[citation needed] Ram Samudrala published the Free Music Philosophy. Mirroring the free software movement, it called for artists to allow their songs and compositions to be distributed with fewer copyright restrictions.

In 1998, the term open source was suggested as a substitute to free software because it avoided the ambiguous double-meaning of ‘free’ in English and was not as value-laden as the term free software. In that year, David A. Wiley coined the term OpenContent to describe both a particular licence and the broader concept of non-software libre works. Ironically, the OpenContent License is not libre because it forbids making copies for profit.

Drawing on Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (published in 2002), the free culture movement promoted the distribution of cultural works under similar terms to those free software is distributed under. One of the more active manifestations of this movement has been Students for Free Culture.

In other languages[edit]

Romance languages that have the gratis versus libre distinction do not need a specialised term for "free as in freedom". The Indian free software community sometimes uses the term "Swatantra software", borrowing a word from Sanskrit.[11] In Filipino, the word "libre" (borrowed from Spanish) has the same cost/freedom ambiguity as the English word "free". The term "malayang software" is sometimes used instead.[12]

Libre resources[edit]

Libre resources describes the works containing or communicating libre knowledge, such as files in an open format containing text, an image, sound, multimedia, etc. or combinations of these, accessible with libre software, and released under a libre licence.

Libre knowledge[edit]

Main article: Libre knowledge

Libre knowledge describes a set of principles and methodologies common to those who want knowledge—and the works explaining and sharing knowledge—to be free and open to use. Knowledge is taken to include data, content and general information, but also draws terms and processes from the open source movement.

Users of libre knowledge are free to

(0) use the work for any purpose (1) study its mechanisms, to be able to modify and adapt it to their own needs (2) make and distribute copies, in whole or in part (3) enhance and/or extend the work and share the result.

Freedoms 1 and 3 require free file formats and free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation[10]

Libre content[edit]

Main articles: Free content and Open knowledge

Libre content describes non-software and non-data creative works, such as books, songs and movies. Free documentation is a term used by the Free Software Foundation to describe libre content that supports software, like manuals. Open content has also been used to describe these works, but it has come to be used to describe works with any added permissions over the copyright status quo.

Libre content avoids this ambiguity. The four freedoms that must be guaranteed by free content are adapted from the four freedoms Richard Stallman called for in software.

Open data[edit]

Main article: Open data

Open data describes data which is freely available to everyone to use and republish without violating copyright law or sui generis database rights.

Free, libre and open-source software[edit]

The concept of libre works arose with Richard Stallman’s description of free software in 1985 and was codified in the 1986 free software definition. Libre software remain some of the most well known and successful examples of libre works, and are widely used in the community.

Open source hardware[edit]

Main article: Open source hardware

Designs, inventions and physical technology available for public use and reuse are described as open hardware or open source hardware.[citation needed] However, whereas most libre works grant freedom under copyright law, open source hardware typically depends on exceptions to patent law.

Free file formats[edit]

Main article: Free format

A free file format is a published specification for storing digital data not encumbered by any copyright, trademark, patent or other restriction.[13]

Free/libre protocols and open standards[edit]

Main articles: Free protocol and Open standard

Libre protocols are communications protocols without legal or technical restrictions. Open standards are less strictly defined, but by some definitions the term describes technical standards without legal restrictions.

Libre licences[edit]

Libre licences are licences pertaining to copyright in which the copyright owner has granted the freedoms specified in the definitions of libre software, libre knowledge and libre cultural works. A libre resource (one so-licensed or in the public domain) is free of any restrictions which might prevent users from being able to exercise these freedoms (such as DRM or patent-encumbrance). For example, of the still active Creative Commons licences, Creative Commons Attribution, Attribution-ShareAlike and Zero are libre licences.

Share-alike or copyleft[edit]

The copyleft symbol
Main article: Copyleft
Further information: Share-alike

Copyleft describes a requirement on some libre licences that copies and modifications of the original work must be available under the same or similar licence. In this way, copyleft licences guarantee that all modifications and extensions of a libre work will be free as well.[14] The GNU General Public License was the first copyleft licence and remains the most commonly used. When a libre licence has a share-alike term, it is a copyleft licence. For example, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence is a copyleft licence.

Copyleft licences are also described as reciprocal or (pejoratively) as viral licences. One reason given for their use is that they are capable of ‘growing the commons’, by encouraging future works to be libre to take advantage of existing libre resources.[5]

Permissive or copyfree[edit]

The copyfree symbol
Main article: Copyfree

Permissive libre, copyfree, copycenter or academic licences are those libre licences which do not require derivative works to be licensed under the same licence as the original work. They also typically do not have other requirements that are common in copyleft licences, like restrictions on formats that the work can be available in or whether Digital Rights Management may be used on the product. The Copyfree Standard Definition, used by the Copyfree Initiative to certify copyfree licenses, disallows licenses that come with such copyleft requirements from certification.

Public domain[edit]

A public domain symbol
Main article: Public domain

Public domain works are the least restricted libre works, although their status typically comes from the expiration of copyright rather than a libre licence. However, there are declarations that purport to place a work in the public domain or, in the case of the CC Zero licence, give it the same freedoms as works in the public domain.

Public domain libre software licences are sometimes described as beerware.

Statements and symbols[edit]

As well as the libre licences described above, which require copyright law to function, members of the libre movement have also created symbols and statements that purport to operate without a legal mechanism. Kopimi is described as 'symbol showing that you want to be copied.'[15] Question Copyright artist-in-residence Nina Paley advocates Copyheart, a sentence intended to replace the usual copyright declaration on a work: '♡2010 by Author/Artist. Copying is an act of love. Please copy.'[16] Regarding the lack of legal certainty provided by the statement, Paley writes:

We really don’t think laws and “imaginary property” have any place in peoples’ love or cultural relations. Creating more legally binding licenses and contracts just perpetuates the problem of law—a.k.a. state force—intruding where it doesn’t belong. That ♡copyheart isn’t a legally binding license is not a bug—it’s a feature![16]

Likewise, the Libre Society drafted two libre ‘licences’, but celebrated their lack of legal power.[17] They are the Res Divini Juris Licence and the Res Communes Licence,[17] but neither is in common use.

Related concepts[edit]

Open educational resources[edit]

There are competing definitions of open educational resources, but they describe at least resources that are accessible for no charge to students and educators, and typically under a public copyright licence that permits the resource to be shared and adapted.

As with open access, narrower definitions of open educational resources do exist. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation definition describes open educational resources as either "resid[ing] in the public domain or [...] released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others."[18] Under this definition, all open educational resources would qualify as libre.

In practice, however, many open educational resources—even those under public copyright licences—are not libre. MIT OpenCourseWare, for example, is under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

Open access[edit]

Main article: Open access

In 2008, Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad, members of the open access community, proposed the use of the terms 'gratis open access' and 'libre open access' to resolve confusion within the open access community between resources that were open because they were free of price restrictions and those that were open because they were free of price and some permission restrictions.[19]

Significantly, this definition of libre open access covered works for which any amount of permissions restrictions had been lifted. This definition breaks from the established use of the term libre to refer to free content and free software, where a specific threshold of permission must be reached.

The definition of open access reached in the Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin statements (referred to collectively as the 'BBB Definition')[20] specifies the permission barriers that must be lowered for a work to be considered open access:

By "open access" to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. (Budapest Open Access Initiative statement)[20]

[A work is open access where the copyright holder has given general permission to] copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship. (Bethesda and Berlin statements)[20]

All open access works that meet the BBB definition would qualify as libre. However, in the years following the BBB statements, some writers used the term "open access" in the BBB sense while others used it for works that were merely gratis or free of price restrictions. When Harnad wanted to write about all-rights-reserved gratis articles, he was faced with the option of referring to them as "open access" (in contravention of the BBB definitions) or redefining "open access" to include non-libre works.

The compromise arrived at by Suber and Harnad was to identify two classes of open access: gratis open access, which is merely free of charge, and libre open access, which is free of charge as well as free from one or more permission restrictions. However, the standard definition of libre requires that a work be free from a particular set of permission restrictions; some works that qualify as libre open access would not qualify as libre (for example, those with a Creative Commons NonCommercial or NoDerivatives licence term).

Suber continues to support the use of the Creative Commons Attribution licence for articles, a libre licence in every sense of the word.[21]

Creative Commons[edit]

Main article: Creative Commons

Two Creative Commons licences, Attribution and Attribution-ShareAlike, are libre licences (they are marked as ‘approved for free cultural works’). Creative Commons Zero is also libre. The remaining four main licences are not libre.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Quo vadis, libre software?.
  2. ^ Free software philosophy at
  3. ^ "Public domain – Definition of Free Cultural Works". Retrieved 2013-02-23. 
  4. ^ Free Software Foundation, Inc. "Various Licenses and Comments about Them – GNU Project". Free Software Foundation. Retrieved 2013-02-23. 
  5. ^ a b Kim Tucker. "Say 'Libre'". Free Knowledge Foundation. Archived from the original on 2008-11-20. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  6. ^, OED definition of libre: "Obs. Of the will: Free".
  7. ^ Libre appears in few English dictionaries. The Onelook dictionary website finds about 5 monoglot English dictionaries including "libre"; about 30 include "gratis".
  8. ^ Fotopoulou Sophia. "The Diamond Sutra: The World's Earliest Dated Printed Book". Newsfinder. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  9. ^ "European Working Group on Software Libre". 
  10. ^ a b "Libre Communities". Free Knowledge Foundation. Archived from the original on 2008-10-10. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  11. ^ "FSF-India's homepage". "Think of it as swatantra software" 
  12. ^ "Re: Free Software, some thoughts". "My suspicion is that if RMS were Filipino, he would have used Malayang Software to avoid the confusion regarding economics v. liberty." 
  13. ^ "Free File Format Definition". Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  14. ^ "What is Copyleft?". Retrieved 2010-08-29. 
  15. ^ "kopimi". Retrieved 2012-03-10. 
  16. ^ a b "Copyheart". Retrieved 2012-03-10. 
  17. ^ a b Berry and Moss. "The politics of the libre commons". Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  18. ^ Atkins, Daniel E.; John Seely Brown; Allen L. Hammond (February 2007). "A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities". Menlo Park, CA: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. p. 4. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  19. ^ Gratis and libre open access
  20. ^ a b c Peter Suber. "Praising progress, preserving precision". SPARC Open Access Newsletter issue 77 (24 September 2004). Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  21. ^ Peter Suber. "Peter Suber on the future of open access (transcript)". Joho the Blog (26 February 2009). Retrieved 2012-03-13. 

External links[edit]