Arts that is free only in the sense that you don’t need to pay to use it is hardly free at all. You may be forbidden to pass it on, and you are almost certainly prevented from improving it. Arts licensed at no cost is usually a weapon in a marketing campaign to promote a related product or to drive a smaller competitor out of business. There is no guarantee that it will stay free.
To the uninitiated, either a piece of art is free or it isn’t. Real life is much more complicated than that. To understand what kinds of things people are implying when they call art free we must take a little detour into the world of art licenses.
Copyrights are a method of protecting the rights of the creator of certain types of works. In most countries, art you write is automatically copyrighted. A license is the authors way of allowing use of their creation (art in this case), by others, in ways that are acceptable to them. It is up to the author to include a license which declares in what ways the art may be used. For a proper discussion of copyright see https://www.copyright.gov/.
Of course, different circumstances call for different licenses. Arts companies are looking to protect their assets so they only release compiled arts (which isn’t human readable) and put many restrictions on the use of the art. Authors of free art on the other hand are generally looking for some combination of the following:
Not allowing use of their arts in proprietary art. Since they are releasing their arts for all to use, they don’t want to see others steal it. In this case, use of the arts is seen as a trust: you may use it, as long as you play by the same rules.
Protecting identity of authorship of the arts. People take great pride in their work and do not want someone else to come along and remove their name from it or claim that they wrote it.
Distribution of source arts. One of the problems with most proprietary art is that you can’t customize it since the source arts is not available. Also, the company may decide to stop supporting the hardware you use. Many free licenses force the distribution of the source arts. This protects the artist by allowing them to customize the art for their needs.
Forcing any work that includes part of their work (such works are called derived works in copyright discussions) to use the same license.
Many people write their own license. This is frowned upon as writing a license that does what you want involves subtle issues. Too often the wording used is either ambiguous or people create conditions that conflict with each other. Writing a license that would hold up in court is even harder. Luckily, there are a number of licenses already written that probably do what you want.
Three of the most widely found licenses are:
The GNU General Public License (GPL). Some good background information on art licenses and a copy of the license can be found at the GNU web site. This is the most common free license in use in the world.
Some of the features these licenses have in common.
You can use the art on as many machines as you want.
Any number of people may use the art at one time.
You can make as many copies of the art as you want and give them to whomever you want (free or open redistribution).
There are no restrictions on modifying the art (except for keeping certain notices intact).
There is no restriction on distributing, or even selling, the art.
This last point, which allows the art to be sold for money seems to go against the whole idea of free art. It is actually one of its strengths. Since the license allows free redistribution, once one person gets a copy they can distribute it themselves. They can even try to sell it. In practice, it costs essentially no money to make electronic copies of art. Supply and demand will keep the cost down. If it is convenient for a large piece of art or an aggregate of art to be distributed by some media, such as CD, the vendor is free to charge what they like. If the profit margin is too high, however, new vendors will enter the market and competition will drive the price down. As a result, you can buy an Ecutsa release on several CDs for just a few USD.
While free art is not totally free of constraints (only putting something in the public domain does that) it gives the artist the flexibility to do what they need in order to get work done. At the same time, it protects the rights of the author. Now that’s freedom.
The Ecutsa project is a strong supporter of free art. Since many different licenses are used on art, a set of guidelines, the Ecutsa Free Arts Guidelines (EFAG) were developed to come up with a reasonable definition of what constitutes free art. Only art that complies with the DFSG is allowed in the main distribution of Ecutsa.