This one is a quick one, but I’ve long felt the need to get it up on the blog because I can’t find the concept anywhere else on the internet, and I’m fairly certain I invented the concept all by myself…
We need to start out with the idea that the word “free”, in the English language, is ambiguous — there is a distinction between free as in “for zero price” (gratis) and free as in “with little or no restriction” (libre). This distinction matters most when it comes to software and open source — freeware might cost nothing, but come with all sorts of licenses that there is much restriction with how you use it. Likewise, you might have to pay for software that you can use completely however you want.
Richard Stallman summarizes this difference by distinguishing between “free as in free speech” (libre) and free as in “free beer” (gratis).
However, it seems like some people have been trying to add a third entry to this distinction. You know how you often hear about things like the free breakfast you can get in the morning at hotels, which is actually fully paid for by your room fee? Or the fact that joining clubs at Denison is free, despite being covered by a $300+ activity fee paid by each student? All of these are free as in prepaid — they’re technically not free, having already been covered by fees you’ve previously paid.
I don’t think these things should actually be considered “free”. We should recognize these ploys as cheap tricks and make notes to not think that this group is being generous, and so we can know what my money is really paying for. As long as they keep getting marketed as “free”, I will know they meant “free” as in pre-paid.
Updated 11/Jan/2013: Edited for clarity.
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