Freeware Definition

Freeware is computer software that is made available free of charge, but which is copyrighted by its developer, who retains the rights to control its distribution, modify it and sell it in the future. It is typically distributed without its source code, thus preventing modification by its users.

Source code is the version of software as it is originally written by a human in plain text (i.e., human readable alphanumeric characters) and before it is converted into its final, executable (i.e., runnable) form by a compiler. Source code can be written in any of numerous programming languages, some of the most popular of which are C, C++, Java, Perl, PHP and Tcl/Tk.

The term freeware was coined and trademarked in the 1980s by Andrew Fluegelman, an attorney, computer magazine editor and developer of a popular communications program named PC-Talk. However, that trademark was subsequently abandoned and the term thus became generic ( i.e., it can legally be used by anybody).

Freeware is usually distributed with a license that permits its redistribution to some extent, for example allowing users to give copies to friends. However, there may be restrictions, such as limitations on its commercial use. Some licenses permit the software to be freely copied but not sold. Another common provision is the prohibition of use by the military.

Comparison With Other Types of Software

Freeware is very different from free software. The latter term generally refers to software that is free not only in a monetary sense but also in that there are no restrictions (or only very minimal restrictions) on its use, including the rights to modify it and redistribute the modified forms.

Freeware is also different from open source software. The latter term refers to software for which the source code is made freely available and for which there are very minimal restrictions on its use. Open source software is usually also free in a monetary sense, and thus in most cases is the same thing as free software.

By far the most frequently used license for free software is the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL requires (1) that that the source code be made freely available for any GPL-licensed software, including modified versions of such software, that is redistributed and (2) that the text of the copyrighted GPL license itself be included with any redistribution. Among the most popular of the vast number of programs released under the GPL are the Linux kernel (i.e., the core of the operating system) and the Firefox web browser.

BSD style licenses are even less restrictive than the GPL in that they only require the original copyright notice to be kept intact and do not require the source code to be made available for redistributions of modified versions. Among the best known examples of software released under such license are FreeBSD and the other BSD operating systems.

There are several additional categories of software that are also available (at least to some extent) at no cost to users, but which are not necessarily freeware. They are much less commonly used on Linux systems than free software and freeware, but they should be mentioned for the sake of completeness.

Among them is shareware, which is distributed in a manner similar to freeware except that it typically requires payment after some trial period or for the activation of some features. As is the case with most freeware, the source code is usually not available. Nagware is a type of shareware that periodically reminds the user to register (and pay for) the program, typically in the form of dialog boxes (i.e., pop-up messages) that appear on the screen either when the program is starting up or while it is being used.

Possibly the most popular shareware program is WinZip, a file compression utility for use on Microsoft operating systems. WinZip is actually a type of nagware (although the nagging is very mild) because all features remain enabled even after the 21 day evaluation period has elapsed. This, together with the very high quality of the program, have made it the most widely used compression utility for Microsoft Windows despite the availability of a number of shareware and freeware alternatives.

Crippleware is shareware for which some features are not activated until payment is made. Liteware is a version of a full-featured program that lacks some of the features of the full program. It is similar to crippleware, except that some features are left out of the program completely rather than merely being disabled.

Adobe's Photoshop LE and its successor, Photoshop Elements, can be considered liteware because they lacks some of the advanced features used only by high-end graphic artists in the full-blown version of Photoshop. They could be considered freeware only in the sense that they are bundled with the purchase of some scanners, and thus in effect are free to such purchasers; unlike most freeware, they were never available as free downloads.

Adware is also available at no cost to users, but it differs from freeware in that it shows advertisements on the screen (which many people find annoying). Some adware continues to generate ads even when the user is not running the program that contains the adware. Also, some adware contains spyware, which is code that will send information about the user's computer to the developer or to some other location whenever the user is connected to the Internet.

An example of adware is Opera, the highly rated web browser from Norway. Opera shows advertisement banners but does not install spyware. The advertisements can be eliminated by paying a registration fee. Another example is the venerable Eudora e-mail client, which is available both in an adware version and a freeware version that contains fewer features.

Donationware is distributed with a request that the user make a donation to the author or to some third party such as a charity. Because the donation is optional, donationware might be considered to be a type of freeware.

Postcardware is essentially freeware, except that the author requests that each user send a postcard thanking the author and containing any desired comments about the software. Reasons for the postcard are to remind the user that someone else shared something freely and to provide the author with some feedback, including about who is actually using the software and where they are located. Sometimes donationware and postcardware are collectively referred to as requestware.

Abandonware is commercial software that has not been sold or supported by its developer for several years or whose copyright holder is no longer in business. The licenses for such software usually forbid redistribution or require payment, and thus redistributing it violates the developer's copyright. However, the developer might not be interested in enforcing it. This is similar to orphanware, which is software for which the developer or distributor can no longer be located. Most abandonware and orphanware consists of old computer games.

Public domain software is software that is in the public domain, that is, the copyright has been explicitly relinquished by its owner (usually the developer) and thus nobody owns it. Anybody is entitled to use such software for any purpose, including modifying it, giving it away and selling it in its original or modified form. Most freeware, however, is not in the public domain, as the owner has not relinquished the copyright.

Motivations For Releasing Software as Freeware

There are several reasons that developers might make their software available as freeware. They include (1) to serve as a loss leader in order to attract customers to other services or products that they provide for a fee, (2) because other methods of distribution are unlikely to make a profit or because the software is outdated and is no longer worth selling and (3) out of a genuine desire to do good and help make the world a better place.

Possibly the most widely used piece of freeware is Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser. This program was made free in order to capture market share from the initially dominant Netscape browser. A major criticism of Internet Explorer is that the lack of availability of its source code has made it impossible for users to correct bugs and add features.

Another of the most popular pieces of freeware is Adobe's Acrobat Reader, which is used to read and print PDF (portable document format) files. The source code is not available, but the program can be freely redistributed. The excellent performance of the PDF format together with the free availability of the reader has made PDF the de facto standard for documents for many businesses and government agencies. This benefits Adobe, which is the dominant seller of software used to create PDF documents.

Created October 8, 2004. Updated October 22, 2006.
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