Open Source, Public Domain, Freeware and Free Software- Similarities and Differences Explained

Before the emergence of the GNU general public license movement, organizations and programmers had to write or buy proprietary software. In a proprietary license software, the copyright holder has specific conditions. The owner allows you to use the software but not to modify or distribute it to others.

Proprietary license software, such as Microsoft Office have their advantages, and they are still largely used by most organizations today. However, most proprietary software licenses come at a cost. The biggest drawback of these licenses is that you can't modify or customize the software as you wish. This is what led to the birth of the GNU project.

The GNU movement advocated for creating licenses that allow the user to use, modify, and share the software. This inspired the rise of a range of licenses, including open source licenses, freeware, public domain and free software.

Open Source, Public Domain, Freeware and Free Software- Similarities and Differences Explained

Essentially, these are licenses with fewer restrictions on how they can be used. However, each of them entails a different set of values.

Indeed, Snyk has elaborated and compared what open-source licenses are and their different types. For this post, we'll shed light on several other types of licenses that tend to confuse most new programmers a lot: free software, freeware, shareware, and public domain licenses.

Differences between Freeware, Free Software, and Public Domain Software Licenses

What is a free software license?

A free software license is one of the most confusing types of licenses. Contrary to what its name depicts, these programs are not necessarily free of charge. The word 'free' in their name does not denote the price of the program. Instead, it suggests absolute freedom to use, copy, distribute, study, and even modify the software.

The concept of free software entails 4 types of freedoms;

Freedom 0: The users' ability to use the program for any purpose and as they wish.

Freedom 1: Free access to the program's code allowing the users to study it and even modify it, so it works as they wish.

Freedom 2: The liberty to share and distribute the program to your community so it can help others too.

Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies modified from the original program to the community. This freedom includes making the source code accessible.

Without any of these freedoms, the program is considered to be non-free or proprietary. Also, the owner is viewed to have control over the user, which is unjust.

To clarify, free license software is available for all uses, including commercial and noncommercial purposes. Although the freedom here is about usage and not price, some copies of free license software may be offered free of charge. But whether you get the program for free or not, you can use, modify, distribute, and even sell it.

Are Free software and freeware licenses the same thing? No.

What is a Freeware license?

The term freeware was coined by Andrew Fluegelman and has been used in software licensing since 1982. By definition, a freeware licensed program is made available for use at no cost. This means that the user is not required to pay for the program or its license to use it.

Freeware is legally available to download and use for free, and you'll never be asked to make payment throughout its usage. But there's one significant catch: it's copyrighted by the owner and may have restrictions on its use and distribution. A Freeware license does not allow you to modify the source code.

This makes freeware a proprietary license that has to be used only as originally intended by the owner. Since you're not granted access to the code, you cannot reverse engineer, enhance, or modify the program to compute according to your wish.

This is the significant difference between free and freeware licenses. Examples of freeware license programs include internet browsers, such as Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, Adobe, Yahoo messenger, MSN messenger, and Google Talk.

A product may be availed under Freeware licensing for a couple of reasons;

When an organization wants to promote its brand or generate traffic to its website.

  1. To create an avenue for selling other programs, for instance, installation components.
  2. The program offered for free may be a lite version. Users who want more features may have to upgrade to the advanced version.
  3. As a way of generating revenues through ads embedded in the program.
  4. When a non-profit organization or educational institution wants to offer the program for free use by the public

Freeware is not shareware

Note that Freeware is different from shareware. Shareware is more of a demonstration program that allows you to use it for free for a preset period, for instance, 14 or 30 days. After the evaluation period's expiry, you're required to either purchase a license or quit using the program. Most shareware-licensed programs are written in a way that disables the primary functions until the license is purchased.

Public domain

When a program is placed in the public domain, it's not copyrighted by anyone. This means that there are no legal or editing rights to it. As such, the public may use it freely as they wish and even modify, distribute, and sell it without any restrictions whatsoever. The major problem with programs in the public domain is that there’s almost no support guaranteed.

How does software enter the public domain?

There are various ways through which a copyrighted license can get into the public domain:

After expiry of the copyrights- it legally becomes freely available in the public domain when copyright reaches its expiry date. In the USA, all software copyrights filed after January 1, 1978, last the owner's life plus 70 years. For corporations, the length of the copyright is 95 years. Considering the complexity and advancement in computer and software technology, it's improbable that a code will retain its value for that long.

Intentional waiver- copyright holders can decide to waiver or surrender their rights to a program before the expiry of the copyright.
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Hi, I’m Ghanendra Yadav, SEO Expert, Professional Blogger, Programmer, and UI Developer. Get a Solution of More Than 500+ Programming Problems, and Practice All Programs in C, C++, and Java Languages. Get a Competitive Website Solution also Ie. Hackerrank Solutions and Geeksforgeeks Solutions. If You Are Interested to Learn a C Programming Language and You Don't Have Experience in Any Programming, You Should Start with a C Programming Language, Read: List of Format Specifiers in C.
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