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GNU Open Source:
Copyright Versus Copyleft

One of the principal differences between the three primary classes of software is the way that they treat copyright.

In the case of freeware, shareware and trialware copyright is always vested in the software developer.

However, freeware authors don't ask anything for their software and allow others to redistribute it.

Shareware authors, by contrast, do ask that people pay something for their software if they continue using it but they also allow others to redistribute it.

And trialware authors not only also ask for payment at the end of the trial period and lock down their software if you don't buy a license, but also prohibit their trialware being redistributed.

The open source software movement, on the other hand, has created a unique new system that turns copyright law on its head.

Open Source's GNU General Public Licence system allows people to get their hands on software source code and literally do almost anything they like with it.

However, in granting this permission GNU also uses copyright law to ensure that the freedoms of developers and users are preserved in perpetuity and that any software developed under the GNU system can never later be taken over by a commercial software company to enrich themselves.

This system is commonly referred to as copyleft. It's expressly designed to encourage software developers to contribute their efforts to open source projects and to help spread the results of those efforts as far as possible.

The world's major software companies aren't fond of the Open Source movement and in recent years some have argued that open source software isn't as reliable and trustworthy as proprietary software.

This is because the GNU philosophy is fundamentally opposed to the business model that software manufacturers follow.

However, the steady rise of GNU licensed software and the way that it's slowly cannibalised some sections of the software market (eg: the rise of Linux) show that if what the big software companies say is true (and we doubt it is), then most of us simply don't care.

Other Software Definition Resources

Types Of Software Licences
Background: In general there are three primary types of software - and software licences - in the world today:
  • Freeware (which includes Open Source software)
  • Shareware, and
  • Trialware

This page provides definitions of what these three types of software are and the major sub-categories that exist within each type.

If you've ever been confused by software licensing issues or the sometimes fine-line distinctions that exist between each type, we hope this page will help clear them up.

This page will also help explain what types of software we review and list here in The Free Software Store and what types we don't.


Freeware usually refers to software that can be downloaded and used at no cost for an unlimited period of time.

However, some freeware manufacturers make an important distinction based on how their software is used.

  • If a product is used at home for activities that don't generate income it's generally regarded as being for personal use and remains free
  • If a product is used in a business it's sometimes regarded as being for commercial use, and in such cases the vendors may ask you to pay a fee
  • If a product is used by students and/or members of an educational faculty it's usually regarded as being for educational use. Some software vendors equate this as being the same as personal use while others regard it as commercial use. And still other vendors regard this as being mid-way between the two (and they usually offer discounted fees for educational institutions as a result).

Another type of freeware is any software produced under any version of the GNU GPL license (commonly referred to as "Open Source" software, and equally often referred to as "free software" to distinguish it from freeware). GNU is supported by the Free Software Foundation and free in this context goes well beyond the "no payment" concept: instead, it's about the freedom to use, share, study and modify a piece of software.

For this to be possible, the source code for all Open Source software must be made freely available as well as the source code of any modified and shared versions (freeware, by contrast, is usually distributed in a compiled proprietary format where the only person who has access to the source code is the software developer).

And while the GPL licence allows anyone to charge any amount of money for any Open Source software they modify, distribute or create derivative works from, in practice this rarely happens and almost every product licensed under the GPL can be obtained without paying any kind of fee whatsoever.

A final class of freeware is software that's supported by advertising (sometimes called adware). In this case the software can generally be used at no cost for an unlimited period of time in personal, educational and/or commercial environments in exchange for the user viewing ads or for carrying out other activities that the vendor hopes will generate commercial returns for them.

A software product is usually regarded as adware if it falls into at least one of the following categories:

  • It displays ad banners or other types of advertising material when it runs
  • It attempts to change the home page for web browsers installed on the system
  • It attempts to change the default search engine for web browsers installed on the system
  • It offers to download or install software or components (eg: browser toolbars) that the program doesn't require to fully function
  • At program startup/shutdown it opens web pages featuring advertising or similar income generating content
  • It creates desktop or start menu shortcuts for items unrelated to the program's functionality

Both freeware and open source software are very well regarded (and - we think - deservedly so). Many of the best software products in the world have their roots in the freeware and open source movements - for example, Mozilla browsers or the Linux operating system.

But adware has been heavily polluted by many unscrupulous people over the last decade and - as a direct result - adware as a whole is now regarded by most people as software to be avoided at all costs.

The Free Software Store lists freeware and open source software, but we very rarely list adware unless it comes from a highly reputable company; the advertising is non-intrusive; and the software doesn't alter system settings and/or download non-essential components (and even then, we will clearly label a product as adware).

As at the date of writing we only list one adware product: the Eudora email program (which is also available in non-ad supported versions).


Shareware refers to commercial software that's copyrighted but which may be copied for others for the purpose of having them try it out with the understanding that they'll pay for it if they continue to use it.

Shareware has also been known as "try before you buy" software and it's a marketing concept that was originally designed to help level the playing field between small software developers (who often don't have large marketing budgets) and large software manufacturers (who do).

By allowing free distribution of their software, shareware authors hope that word of mouth for a better product will help counter-balance the marketing hype that often goes into inferior products distributed by larger software companies (and this has certainly happened for many products - for example, the world-famous file compressors WinZip and WinRAR).

And shareware has become such a successful marketing concept that since it began in 1988 it's steadily spread to all the major software manufacturers, who now routinely make all their products available in free trial versions (known as "Trialware" - see further below)

A shareware program is usually accompanied by a request for payment and the software's distribution license often requires such a payment if you intend to keep using it and want to stay on the right side of the law (though in practice, the number of people actually prosecuted for violating shareware licences is almost zero).

If the "tryout" program is already the full version, then it's generally only available for a short amount of time (usually 15 to 90 days) or a limited number of runs (eg: 50 uses). But if it's not the full version then it may run forever but be missing important but non-critical features like updates, help, and other extras that come when a license fee is paid.

A subset of shareware is software where critical or core features have been locked out or not included (for example, a graphics conversion program which overstamps images or a video converter which only converts part of a file). This subset is sometimes called "demoware".

Shareware is promoted and supported by the Association Of Shareware Professionals and one of its big attractions to both developers and customers is that it bypasses the retail middlemen (a process greatly assisted by the rise of the Internet). This means that it generally allows users to obtain first rate software at a much cheaper price than they'd otherwise be able to if the software was distributed in the normal way.

The Free Software Store lists shareware products (either fully-featured programs or those with non-critical elements removed or turned off) and we try to make clear in each case exactly what type of shareware a particular program is. We also encourage you to buy a licence if you download a shareware program and intend to keep using it.

Many of the best software products in the world are distributed as shareware. And - as software consumers - we believe that we can only maintain this flow of programming brilliance into the future by supporting the people who bring it to us. We do not, however, list demoware.


Trialware is the commercial software industry's version of shareware and it exists because shareware was so successful at popularising the idea of "try before you buy" that commercial software manufacturers were literally compelled to follow the same model or watch their sales wither on the vine.

These days it's possible to get almost any software from any of the large manufacturers (eg: Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec etc) as a free trialware download.

The key differences between shareware and trialware are that:

  • Although you have the right to download and use trialware software for a set trial period you do not have the right to redistribute that software to anybody else (and may face prosecution if you do), and...
  • If you continue to use the software after the trial period expires - and most trialware is set up so that it's just about impossible to do this anyway - you could likely get sued by the manufacturer (and this is far more likely than it is with shareware authors, since the makers of trialware are amongst the biggest software corporations in the world and many have a very long history of doing this), and...
  • Feature limitations or demoware are much more common in trialware than they are in shareware.

The Free Software Store doesn't usually list trialware except in rare circumstance where we honestly feel that a commercial product may either be the best in a particular segment or the best alternative to look at if freeware and shareware programs don't quite meet your needs.


This page last updated: 16-Aug-2008


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