There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, as I learned a long time ago while eating my soup and being forced to listen to a product pitch from some marketing droid straight out of college. I thought I was going to get an inside edge on technology developments at the company, instead I found myself in a world of pain where apparently the use of the word 'leverage' at least twice a minute was compulsory. I mention this because I always get goosebumps when the term 'free software' is bandied about, all too aware that all too often it is nothing of the sort. From the blatant marketing message (the software is free, but then so are the adverts that eat the screen space) through to the 'actually it's a demo and you need to pay up after a month, when you've already invested your time inputting all that data' definition of free. The small print usually explains all of this, naturally enough, but then nobody reads the small print do they?

Certainly that would appear to be the conclusion of the Federal Trade Commission which has come to a settlement with one company over a charge that it had offered free software that ended up costing customers dearly. According to reports a free CD of software was offered in return for a minimal shipping and handling fee, quickly followed by another offer of more free software for those who signed up. The catch, says the FTC, is that the lucky consumer had to agree to the terms of use before getting the second batch of free stuff. Guess what, people did just that without actually reading those terms, without checking the license they were agreeing to, despite being given every opportunity so to do.

As always, I am on the side of the honest John consumer here, but seriously how daft or desperate do you have to be not to at least give the T&C's a quick glance for anything the stands out. Stands out like saying that unless you return two of those free CDs within 10 days you'll get charged a fee of up to $49 and enrolled in a 'software continuity program' for more CDs which would cost the same.

The FTC did not think this fair, so it charged the company with unfair and deceptive practises that were in violation of the FTC Act as well as with violating the Unordered Merchandise Statute. As well as a settlement that effectively prevents the company from making misrepresentations the FTC has also pressed home the point that there is no such thing as a free lunch by agreeing an amount of more than $2 million in consumer compensation.