Yes, Blender is free
(but what does it really mean?)

A 3D mod­eller, ani­ma­tion suite and not one but two ren­der engines. Blender’s code­base is full of insane­ly com­plex work and math. So, how can it be free?

Table Of Contents 

We’re talk­ing about one of the most math inten­sive prob­lem domains in soft­ware. It’s no won­der that in all these years there have been very few open source mod­el­ling suites besides Blender, and none of them seemed to grow beyond basic poly­gon mod­el­ling. Let’s look at how this is pos­si­ble but before we dive in, let’s see what free real­ly means here.

Blender is free in both mean­ings: free of charge (as in beer) and free as in freedom. 

Free as in Beer

The Blender foundation headquarters

Being gratis or Open Source does­n’t mean devel­op­ing Blender does­n’t cost any mon­ey. At the time of writ­ing this the Blender Foundation is receiv­ing rough­ly US$122,000 per month from ~5,000 indi­vid­u­als and 45 cor­po­ra­tions. This lets the Blender Foundation employ 20 Developers to work on Blender full time. You can see this num­bers at any time on the fund page.

The income comes from dona­tions of users, spon­sor­ship of com­pa­nies and foun­da­tions, sales of DVDs/USB Sticks, merch, man­u­als (in the old days when we read books and such), fundrais­ing cam­paigns and sub­scrip­tions to the Blender Cloud. 

Free as in freedom

Free as in free­dom is the licens­ing part of the equa­tion. Yes, there is a license. Most of the code is devel­oped under the GPL2 license, while some mod­ules have more per­mis­sive licens­es. For instance, Cycles is uses Apache 2.0. All com­po­nents are com­pat­i­ble with the GPL 3 though, which is the license used for the final exe­cutable files the Blender Foundation distributes.

You can do almost any­thing you want. You are free to keep Blender for­ev­er in as many PCs as you want, peek around the source code, change any­thing.
Most impor­tant­ly you can share all of this with others.

The only lim­i­ta­tion is that you can’t re-license the code or dis­trib­ute it under a more restric­tive license. Libraries that inter­act with Blender also have to be com­pat­i­ble with the GPL and its four free­doms. For exam­ple, you can make changes to Blender under a pro­pri­etary license but you if you want to dis­trib­ute them they will have to be released under the GPL. Of course this does­n’t include the Blender name and logo, which are pro­tect­ed trademarks.

People are doing all kinds of crazy exper­i­ments with Blender and oth­er free soft­ware, you can check them out GraphicAll 

Richard Stallman, author of the FSF
Richard Stallman founder of the FSF, author of the orig­i­nal GPL and self-pro­claimed saint

Technically, this means Blender is Free Software and not just open source as it com­plies with the FSF’s def­i­n­i­tion of “Free Software”.

A piece of soft­ware is con­sid­ered Free when it grants users these four freedoms:

  1. The free­dom to run the pro­gram as you wish, for any purpose
  2. The free­dom to study how the pro­gram works, and change it so it does your com­put­ing as you wish.
  3. The free­dom to redis­trib­ute copies so you can help others
  4. The free­dom to dis­trib­ute copies of your mod­i­fied ver­sions to others.

You can read more in the Free Software Foundation website

How we got here

Our beloved 3D soft­ware start­ed its life around the hol­i­days of 1993 as an in-stu­dio mod­el­ling tool for stu­dio NeoGeo (not relat­ed to the arcade/console). The stu­dio was found­ed in 1989 by our favorite dutch Ton Roosendaal, who is also the first devel­op­er, main­tain­er and project leader up to this day. The first ver­sion of Blender with the clas­sic sub­di­vid­able win­dows we know today was run­ning by January 1994. You can check the source here code for it here, com­plete with com­ments in Dutch

According to Ton, the name Blender comes from a stu­dio NeoGeo demo reel made in 1992. The demo reel used a song from Yello, called Blender as well (“The Blender for the next mil­len­ni­um!”). The in-house soft­ware then was called Traces back then, so when he did a com­plete over­haul of it he want­ed a bet­ter name for the project. Someone sug­gest­ed Blender, and it stuck.

Blender stayed an in-house tool until a free ver­sion was released on the web in 1998. Shortly after that Studio NeoGeo was tak­en over by anoth­er com­pa­ny and Blender’s future became uncertain.

By the end of 1998 Ton and Frank van Beek found­ed a new com­pa­ny called NaN (from the acronym Not a Number in cod­ing) to fur­ther devel­op and mar­ket Blender. NaN secured invest­ing in ear­ly 2000 and start­ed to grow rapid­ly. However after the dot­com bub­ble burst, NaN had to be restart­ed with new fund­ing as a small­er com­pa­ny. In April 2001 they released their first com­mer­cial prod­uct: Blender Publisher. This prod­uct was tar­get­ed at the emerg­ing mar­ket of inter­ac­tive web-based 3D media, and they were also appar­ent­ly look­ing at mak­ing prod­ucts for the mobile 3D market.

Unfortunately they were far too ear­ly. Remember this was years before the first iPhone. Among a dif­fi­cult eco­nom­ic cli­mate the new investors decid­ed to shut­down NaN, killing Blender’s development.

Plans for that, includ­ing a lim­it­ed open source for Blender, now have been offi­cial­ly reject­ed by one of the share­hold­ers, who owns suf­fi­cient votes to block impor­tant decisions.”

Ton Rosendall, 2002

In July of that same year, Ton final­ly suc­ceed­ed in get­ting the investors to agree to a fundrais­ing cam­paign to pur­chase the source code and NaN’s intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty in order to release it as Open Source. The “Free Blender” cam­paign raised EUR 100,000 in only 7 weeks and on Sunday October 13, 2002, Blender was released to the world under the terms of the GNU GPL. The forum threads from those days are still avail­able at BlenderArtists and they’re quite inter­est­ing to read. You can also read more about the sto­ry in the docs.

Blender devel­op­ment con­tin­ues to this day and is one of the biggest suc­cess sto­ries in the world of open source soft­ware. Blender is the first cre­ative open source appli­ca­tion to get real trac­tion in the indus­try (joined by Krita now), and the future looks even brighter.

Conclusion

For the tl;dr crowd, here’s a quick FAQ.

Is Blender free?

Yes, You can down­load Blender free of charge and keep it forever.

How is Blender development funded?

The Blender Foundation receives grants and dona­tions from from ~5,000 indi­vid­u­als and 45 cor­po­ra­tions. On top of that they also make mon­ey through the Blender Cloud, the Blender Network and merch sales.

Is Blender free as in Freedom?

Yes, Blender com­plies with the four free­doms and there­fore is con­sid­ered Free Software accord­ing to the FSF definition

Why is Blender called that way?

According to Ton, the name ‘Blender’ comes from a demo reel from ani­ma­tion stu­dio NeoGeo in 1992, where the soft­ware was orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped. The demo reel used a song from Yello, called Blender as well (“The Blender for the next millennium!”).

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ArticlesBlender, Free, story25.05.2021



2 Comments

  1. Vromance(7 months ago)

    Hey, nice arti­cle, nev­er saw those YouTube video’s from the ear­li­est days of what is now Blender. Thanks!
    I just want to men­tion: his actu­al cor­rect name is Ton Roosendaal. 🙂

    1. Diego Gangl(7 months ago)

      Ah thanks, you’re right! That’s what hap­pens when I write with­out googling things 🙂

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