The fact that LateX is not paid seems to me as good as it is strange, being that many people work developing it.

So..why is LaTeX free?

  • 3
    free as free beer or free as free speech? Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 5:44
  • 24
    It is true that TeX / LaTeX are some of the oldest free software in existence, predating the Free Software movement, and it is reasonable to ask whether such distribution of software was unusual at the time and whether there were reasons for it. Nevertheless, the fact that “available even for paid Operati[ng] Systems as Windows or Apple” is rather irrelevant. Maybe you can start by reading this list and reconsider your question. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 5:58
  • 13
    If you think you should give something back, you can make a donation to your TeX users group. They will spend the money in different TeX or typography elated projects
    – Johannes_B
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 5:59
  • 2
    The Johannes B in the l3 project is a different Johannes:-) Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 7:06
  • 2
    @CarLaTeX no problem, at least there is a good answer below with a long article for reading. Thanks..
    – user134500
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 8:16

5 Answers 5


Some words on the topic of free and paid software, from the mouths of the original creators:

Donald Knuth, the creator of TeX, from this interview (by Advogato aka Raph Levien) (republished in TUGboat):

Advogato: The first questions that I have are about free software. TeX was one of the first big projects that was released as free software and had a major impact. These days, of course, it's a big deal. But I think when TeX came out it was just something you did, right?

Prof. Knuth: I saw that the whole business of typesetting was being held back by proprietary interests, and I didn't need any claim to fame. I had already been successful with my books and so I didn't have to stake it all on anything. So it didn't matter to me whether or not whether I got anything financial out of it.

[Advogato:] I see.

[Knuth:] There were people who saw that there was a need for such software, but each one thought that they were going to lock everyone into their system. And pretty much there would be no progress. They wouldn't explain to people what they were doing. They would have people using their thing; they couldn't switch to another, and they couldn't get another person to do the typesetting for them. The fonts would be only available for one, and so on.

But I was thinking about FORTRAN actually, the situation in programming in the '50s, when IBM didn't make FORTRAN an IBM-only thing. So it became a lingua franca. It was implemented on all different machines. And I figured this was such a new subject that whatever I came up with probably wouldn't be the best possible solution. It would be more like FORTRAN, which was the first fairly good solution [chuckle]. But it would be better if it was available to everybody than if there were all kinds of things that people were keeping only on one machine.

So that was part of the thinking. But partly that if I hadn't already been successful with my books, and this was my big thing, I probably would not have said, "well, let's give it away." But since I was doing it really for the love it and I didn't have a stake in it where I needed it, I was much more concerned with the idea that it should be usable by everybody. It's partly also that I come out of traditional mathematics where we prove things, but we don't charge people for using what we prove.

So this idea of getting paid for something over and over again, well, in books that seems to happen. You write a book and then the more copies you sell the more you get, even though you only have to write the book once. And software was a little bit like that.

Leslie Lamport, creator of LaTeX, from this interview (republished in TUGboat):

GMZ: Was this always meant to be “free software”? Did you ever try to “get rich” with it? Do you regret that you didn’t?

LL: At the time, it never really occurred to me that people would pay money for software. I certainly didn’t think that people would pay money for a book about software. Fortunately, Peter Gordon at Addison-Wesley convinced me to turn the LaTeX manual into a book. In retrospect, I think I made more money by giving the software away and selling the book than I would have by trying to sell the software. I don’t think TeX and LaTeX would have become popular had they not been free. Indeed, I think most users would have been happier with Scribe. Had Scribe been free and had it continued to be supported, I suspect it would have won out over TeX. On the other hand, I think it would have been supplanted more quickly by Word than TeX has been.

  • 5
    Well I must say myself that it's not so simple… e.g. LaTeX is not just Leslie Lamport but an entire team of people (especially considering when most people say “LaTeX” they are thinking of LaTeX along with many of the popular packages, written by many others). Surely the motivations of say David Carlisle or Frank Mittelbach to work on LaTeX can be different from that of Lamport (and even the context in which they started the work would be different), and David is a better authority on his own perspective! I just thought it may be interesting to point to the views of the initial authors. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 16:58
  • 10
    I agree that there are other components to consider, but it's not entirely unreasonable to say that the further developments of TeX are themselves free because of Knuth's original decision, which as this interview states doesn't seem to have much direct connection to the whole GNU movement, although as David's answer shows they were possibly a consideration for those subsequent authors.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 17:00
  • Reminds me of the saying "there is no limit to what you can achieve if you don't mind who gets the credit". Aptly it is hard to determine who first said that...
    – Floris
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 12:12
  • 3
    +1, for the 100th [!] upvote on this now "officially-great" answer!
    – Mico
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 15:15

One of the more coherent and influential documents advocating free software was Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto written in 1985, revised 1987.

TeX and LaTeX come from around the same time (TeX in its present form from 1982, LaTeX from around 85 and latex2e from 1993). LaTeX isn't GPL and we probably don't make the same black and white moral/amoral classifications as Richard Stallman does, but anyway the Manifesto is a good read and a good introduction to why one might write software and give people freedom to modify it as they wish.

  • 2
    It is strange how the word "competition" appears everywhere..(I am reading the article); I comment this because I was supposing "free software" was related exactly to the opposite..
    – user134500
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 8:09
  • 2
    @HernanMiraola It needs to be put in the context around that time. Still I find Stallman's arguments overzealous.
    – percusse
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 8:19
  • 17
    we probably don't make the same black and white moral/amoral classifications as Richard Stallman does is probably true of most of the free software community. But in a very broad sense Stallman and Knuth are part of the same community of CS academics writing software that was partly tools for their own (community's) use. In a sense this could even extend to Kernighan/Ritchie/Thompson and Bell Labs, and the entire Unix minset
    – Chris H
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 8:39
  • 3
    @percusse It was more at a time where Unix vendors held frantically at their own markedshare of hardware. Sharing hurt sales in the mindset of the time. Open Source as we know it today did not only come from GNU but it helped a lot. For instance the *BSD's unixes was created from the same mindset as TeX. Open Source was deliberately created to distinct that line of thought from the GNU movement, where the word "free software" does not ring well inside a capitalist society (USA) with a strong allergy to communism. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 11:26
  • 7
    @MartinSchröder yes I know, but emacs started also in the 1970s before the project was formalised as gnu. The point of the answer was to give a bit of general historical context to surround the link to the manifesto, not to document the exact time of everything that ever happened since the dawn of time. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:17

TeX and Metafont are academic works indirectly paid by Knuth's employer as part of his normal work, and Knuth needed these tools to produce his academic books and articles.. (His standards are just much higher than for most of the rest of us).

The academic tradition is that you share your stuff, to help your peers achieve even more. Knuth explicitly put TeX in the public domain to make this as easy as possible. The academic community has adopted this (typically in the LaTeX dialect) because nothing is better for writing advanced mathematics and as they know what you can achieve when you work together the ecosystem has continued the "stuff is available for free"-model because most people has a job already and they need this to do their job, so sharing freely is the model that works the best.

Note that commercial distributions of TeX have existed but with the proliferation of high quality Linux distributions with the necessary packages this is getting quite rare.

In other words, it started free and it works the best for the intended audience, so there is not much to commercialize.

  • 11
    @HernanMiraola Knuth started his career in mathematics in the age of manual typesetting. It was good but labour-intensive and costly. Then came computer typesetting. It sucked but was cheap so all the publishers moved to it. Knuth simply wanted computer typesetting to become as good as manual typesetting used to be. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 10:38
  • 7
    @HernanMiraola Knuth is a very, very skilled computer scientist and wanted to present his work in the best way possible. The first versions of his books did not live up to his standards so he decided to write his own typesetting software (TeX) which needed fonts (MetaFONT) and shared the result with the world so others could use them too. I strongly urge you to read the TeX-book as a printed copy, simply to enjoy the wit and prose of Knuth himself. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 11:20
  • 4
    The academic tradition is really really not sharing but I think we are all aware of that. I find this story a bit too optimistic about intentions. Even putting in public domain didn't exist back then. Besides you don't even have a place to put it. Most of the license validity didn't even exist back then.
    – percusse
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 11:31
  • 10
    @percusse I've heard that on a military base, the most gracious people are the general's wives and the meanest/nastiest are the colonel's wives. The point being, that when you are still struggling to get to the top, graciousness gets easily lost. So while your observation on grace in the academic world is essentially true, I can also surmise that recognized giants in the field (like Knuth) could easily be gracious, since his position in the field was fully established. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 11:35
  • 6
    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen -- "The first versions of his books did not live up to his standards" ... not quite. the first edition of volumes 1-2 of "the art of computer programming" were produced using metal type and traditional composition. it was that quality that knuth wanted to match. go to this page for the bulletin of the ams and look for the article "mathematical typography" by knuth. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:19

Remember the reason much free software came into existence in the first place: someone (often an academic) had a task they needed to do, there was no existing software that would do it properly, so they wrote their own, and they released it so others could use it too.

TeX fits this narrative pretty well. Donald Knuth was irritated that the math in TAOCP was badly typeset [this is not quite correct, see comments below]. He set out to develop a system that he could use to typeset everything nicely. Took somewhat longer than he expected, but he got it working, and working very well, as one would expect from a preeminent computer scientist, working on something for his own use, not collaborating with lesser mortals, and not under any deadline pressure. He wasn’t interested in making a buck off it, because he was comfortably employed at Stanford and just wanted to continue writing his books.

  • 16
    the first editions of volumes 1-3 of taocp were produced with metal type on a monotype typesetter, and their quality was not in question. the phototypeset proofs of the second edition of volume 2 were the trigger that set off the tex adventure. see knuth's article "mathematical typography", linked from this page for the beginning of the story. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:58
  • 3
    As @barbarabeeton says there was never a published version of TAOCP in which typesetting was bad. There were some galley proofs shared only between the publisher and Knuth that were bad but they're not widely available (see here). In fact when the 2nd edition of Vol 2 was published, despite Knuth's efforts being incomparably better than the phototypeset alternative that no one saw, still “almost everyone prefers the first edition” (done with metal by Monotype) said a reviewer: i.sstatic.net/fTYa5.jpg (Later TeX/MF got even better.) Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 17:54
  • 1
    @barbarabeeton I see, thank you. Don’t remember where I’d read about the impetus behind TeX but it certainly didn’t go into this much detail.
    – Tom Zych
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:32

Adding to Tom Zych's answer, think of it from Donald Knuth's perspective. He created a tool he needed to publish his books, or to improve the typesetting of his books. So his primary objective was publishing his books in a format he approved of.

The alternative to a free TeX in the public domain, would be to commercialize it. This means marketing, customer aquisition, customer support, and loads of other tasks, which might not be what an academic likes to spend his/her time on. In fact, Knuth gained more from putting TeX out into the open for free, than he would probably have gained from making it a product, since this would have cost time and money. As it turned out, a free TeX made Knuth widely known in the academic world around the world.

Disclaimer: I am an european engineer, who first learned about TeX at university; then learned about Knuth as the creator of TeX; and then learned about Knuth's books, as these precipitated the creation of TeX. My guess is that worldwide Knuth is more known for TeX than for his academic works (books included), but that's just my opinion.

  • Thanks for the answer although I dont think so. Apple would be free, also Windows. All private entities wouldn't exist with that reasoning. Knuth wouldn't has problem because others would occupy of the "trouble". But of course there is some reason to be open source. Maybe part of a philosophy as DC said, maybe not.
    – user134500
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 14:50
  • 4
    Apple and Windows are not by-products of academics, both were intended to be commercial products from the beginning, in contrast to TeX.. As a mattor of fact both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (the primary persons associated with Apple and Windows) dropped out of College.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 16:15
  • 2
    I think that I remember that back in the day software was free. It wasn't until Gates came along and said that people should pay for others work that all the "amateurs" (i.e non IBM, etc) software should be paid for. I can't tell you in public what I think about MS*. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 18:18
  • 1
    @DohnJoe They are completely academic byproducts indirectly by XeroX where bill gates and steve jobs nicked off many goodies.
    – percusse
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 20:12
  • 4
    MULTICS was not free, and neither was IBM's software; they were just lumped in with the computer. When the days of software development outside the labs and universities came about in the early 1970s, both clearly free and clearly proprietary works came about. I don't think we can blame e.g. the Atari 2600 cartridges on Bill Gates.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .