Introduction to Free Stuff


Everyone loves free stuff. I’ve developed an interest in getting free material on the Internet, in particular audio recordings (music and speech) and the text contents of books.

Of course everyone’s first reaction is “Isn’t the Internet full of free stuff?”, sometimes countered with “Isn’t all that free stuff illegal?” The answer is not as simple as it may look.

Most of the stuff you find on the World Wide Web is protected by copyright. The author/creator/owner gets to decide what can be done with it. So, yes, all those web pages out there are free for you to read, because the authors have published it for you to read. (Although you can’t plagiarize it or claim it for your own.) And, yes, all of those MP3 songs from current popular artists you might download from Kazaa are illegal copies, because the owners of the music have said you have to buy the CD if you want a copy of the song. Regardless of how overpriced it is, it’s their right to do so.

What can you copy freely?

Copying stuff (protected by copyright) without the permission of the owner is essentially illegal. So what can you copy freely?

  • Stuff where the copyright holder gives you permission. Stuff like shareware/”freeware” and GPL-protected open-source software are often given away free-of-charge with the explicit allowance for you to copy them. They often have additional restrictions on what you can or cannot do to them, such as modifying them.
  • Stuff with no copyright, or public domain. Public domain is a specific legal status that means there is no copyright or the copyright has expired. By and large, nearly everything on the Internet is not public domain. You have to search to find it. Most public domain material comes from copyright expiration, which means in general it is at least 50 years old or more.

What’s the difference? It mostly comes down to what you want to do with it. If you just want to have a copy of the original, either status is good enough. If you want to change it, sell it, or use it in something else, you probably want public domain material.

So what does “free” mean anyways?

There are two senses of the word “free”. One refers to freedom, as rights or liberty to do something. The other refers to money, as in free-of-charge. Open-source software people refer to this as “free speech versus free beer”. I’m using both senses here also.



Submitted by amillar on Sun, 2004-05-02 21:36

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