The term "free", as in “free software”, is a software programme that can be used, modified, copied and shared without payment. By contrast, you pay to use “proprietary” software, and you certainly do not have the right to modify or enhance it, as its "source code" (effectively, its DNA) is highly protected. You can’t for instance, enhance the source code of Word or Photoshop.
By extension, the term “free” covers not just software but all kinds of tools and works freely available on the internet, such as images, photos, texts, music and applications.
Most of what is on the internet is of course not “free”. You can access content online, but at least in theory, it is usually subject to copyright. Its creator is entitled to claim royalties, unless he or she has waived this right and “freed” it.
However – and here’s where it gets confusing – there’s also “freeware”, which is not the same as free software. Many of the tools and products that are available for no charge are not “free” at all, in the sense that you cannot access the source code: think of Desktop, Android, SketchUp, Flash Player or Deezer. Not to mention Facebook or YouTube, which appropriate the rights to the content you put online with them and use it to sell advertising space and in user profiling. What they are doing is acquiring your copyright – with your consent, of course, though it’s doubtful whether many Facebook users actually read the small print that points this out. And, once they have done that, they can use whatever you publish on their network, including your profile and photos, to generate revenue.
The picture becomes even more complicated when you discover that there is really no black-and-white distinction between “free” and “not free”, but a grey area in between. There are intermediate levels of “freeness” between a totally free work and one that is copyright protected. Certain photos, for instance, can be “freely” used provided the use is personal and not commercial. The conditions depend on the type of software licence. The most “free” is the commonly used General Public Licence, or "GPL". There’s also the "Creative Commons" licence (a term we’ll be adding to Mynetwords in the near future) which typically requires you to acknowledge the author in any copying and distribution, and may impose other conditions chosen by the author.
It is tempting to view the proponents of “free” software as heroes, the Mother Teresas of the internet. The reality is rather different. The underlying principle for offering something free of charge is not a charitable one, but more of a new economic model. True, the average user can have the benefit of the work or the software without paying, but there still has to be something in it for the author. By making software available free of charge, its creator is aiming to win credibility and visibility for it, and ultimately to establish it as the market standard. Having achieved that, they can go on to offer other products and services, for which they will charge. That is the reasoning behind the decision of some software producers to “free” a product they have designed for a particular customer.
Everyone, in fact, is getting into free software, which explains why the model has really taken off. It has allowed several software programmes to capture the market and achieve high levels of performance, thanks to the community of geeks and other computer wizards who have improved the source code, free of charge. It won’t be long before the tax authorities start taking an interest in the work they do – it could become a form of tax evasion!