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?
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
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
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:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others
- 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 Rosendall, 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.
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!”).