February 26, 2024

Free does not mean gratis: lexical clarifications towards digital literacy

Under the public-private paradigm of our world, free is mistakenly associated with gratis; proprietary is mistakenly associated with commercial, and commercial mistakenly associated with for-profit.

Thinking of such associations is erroneous. If we want to reflect on software, and think of what digital literacy means, we have to clarify these confusions. This blog post is part of a bigger effort to reflect on what it means to become digitally literate1.

First: what is free?

Free (as in freedom of speech, or non-restricted distribution) means using on your own terms. That you can study, comment, modify and redistribute speech freely - in a free world, none of these activities are restricted.

Free does not mean gratis.

You can pay for something which is free (which you can use on your own terms). For example, you can buy (not gratis!) a bicycle (a technology) which you can take apart freely, buy spare parts from whoever you wish (freely). You can study parts of the bicycle freely, modify and improve these parts, manufacture spare parts for your bicycle and the ones of your friends. You paid for your bicycle, yet you can use it freely.

Gratis does not mean free.

Conversely: gratis does not mean free. For example, you can sign up for a social media app/platform gratis but you can’t use it (like the free bicycle) on your own terms. You cannot study, modify, copy or redistribute the software of the social media app/platform which you signed up for. Obtaining something gratis does not necessarily mean that it is free (that you can use it freely).

Proprietary is not necessarily associated with a commercial activity.

The above example also shows that proprietary (the private property of someone or an entity) does not necessarily have to be associated with a commercial activity; something that is proprietary can be gratis (but isn’t free!).

Free can be for sale.

Conversely, something that is freely distributed can be associated with a commercial activity. The bicycle I bought is freely distributed (I can use it on my own terms) but not gratis. One can distribute technology which is free, commercially2.

Free can be for-profit.

The above example also implies that one can distribute technologies (1) freely, (2) commercially, and (3) for profit. For-profit businesses providing digital services using technologies distributed freely exist3.

Commercial does not mean for-profit.

A commercial activity does not necessarily means that it is for-profit. For example, Oxfam, a non-profit, runs shops where you have to pay for stuff. A non-profit can have a commercial activity.

Non-profit does not mean gratis.

The above example also implies that the services non-profit organisations offer are not necessarily gratis.

Feel free to distribute - including prints of - this blog post, even commercial, or for-profit, freely (without restrictions e.g. DRM). This blog post is published under CC BY-ND 4.0.

This is a first draft I published, feel free to send feedback and comments to: https://yctct.com/contact

  1. Not to confuse with the ability to write programmes; e.g. we don’t all know how to write books, yet most of us are literates.↩︎

  2. FAQ: how to generate revenues with technologies which are distributed freely? I have a draft I can send you if you email me. Please do.↩︎

  3. I have a list of these I am drafting I will publish; feel free to email me if you’d like me to send you this list.↩︎


I do self-funded research and I'm writing a book.

> What's the book about?

About technologies and agency.

Meaning, technologies can foster agency. No doubt. But I am also asking:

Can usage of technologies give us a sense of empowerment while in fact undermining our abilities?

I posted a summary of the prologue on the homepage: https://yctct.com/


digital literacy blog post personal computing office applications

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