It depends on what you mean by “free”

Freeware. Shareware. Free software. Open source software. What’s the difference?

Everyone loves getting something for free. And with software licenses being the way they are these days, “free software” sounds pretty attractive.

The trouble is that the word “free” is somewhat problematic - at the time of writing has 17 primary definitions for the adjective “free” and only definition 7a (”Costing nothing; gratuitous: a free meal.”) refers to money. What’s more the term “free software” actually has a specific definition that has nothing to do with money.

So maybe we should start there.

Free Speech

Free software

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) defines “free software” saying that it “is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’”. It’s all about freedom. Specifically the FSF definition says that the user has the freedom to run the software for any purpose, modify the software, and redistribute copies of the software (both the original and modified versions). For a program to meet these criteria, and be called “free software”, the source code must be made available to the public.

Open source software

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) also has an official definition for the related but not identical concept of “open source software” (OSS). As the name suggests, OSS also requires that the source code must be publicly available. The OSS definition also requires that open source software may be freely redistributed with no restriction on who may use it or for what purpose. Users may make modifications, but authors may also maintain the integrity and identity of their original work. The definition also prevents specific technologies and various license “traps” from closing up access to the software and source code.

Not quite the same thing

By these definitions, free software and OSS sound almost identical - in fact at the practical level they often are. People from both camps do collaborate on projects, and any software that is licensed under the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License (GPL) is automatically both free software and open source software. Despite this, the FSF prefers the term “free software” to “open source software”.

The differences underlying the two groups (and their definitions) are philosophical. The OSI is the pragmatic school, for whom “non-free software is a suboptimal solution”. The Free Software Foundation is the home of ethicists who say that “non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution”. The FSF is fundamentally opposed to proprietary software.

Philosophical argument aside, both FSF and OSI are not against charging people for software; indeed the FSF was established on funds from the sale of tapes of the Emacs editor. So “giving away” software for no monetary charge is not a part of free software. The trouble is that people confuse “freedom” with getting something “for free” - the confusion of “free speech” with “free beer”.

Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative

The source code for some Microsoft products is available under the Shared Source Initiative. The license conditions are different for the various products, applicants must be eligible to participate, and their are non-disclosure contract conditions.

Both FSF and OSI reject the Shared Source Initiative as not being free software. And a cynic may say that Microsoft “views Shared Source as a bootstrap marketing tool“, relying on the cachet of open source software to give a leg-up to some of it’s underdog products.

Free Beer

Public domain

Software that is released to the public domain has no copyright restriction and is therefore free to be used by anyone without any sort of licensing burden. That’s sounds very close to free software, but it’s not. In the first place, public domain software may be released without the source code (although there’s nothing to stop a reverse engineering effort, the source isn’t freely available). And even if the source code is released it may be modified and included into non-free software, which goes against the continuity of freedom that the FSF definition requires.


Despite being a fairly common term there appears to be no clear definition of “freeware”. It generally seems to cover a range of software types for which no (direct) charge is made, including downloadable demonstration programs, proprietary utilities and plug-ins (e.g. Adobe Acrobat Reader and Macromedia Flash plug-in, respectively), and “lite” versions that come packaged with hardware. Sometimes freeware is only free of charge for non-commercial use.

Of course, the true cost of freeware is often hidden as software companies subsidise free give-aways by consolidating their position in other more lucrative markets; this is exactly what Adobe and Macromedia do with their free downloads. And why else would Microsoft give away a complex application like Internet Explorer?

So freeware is not the same as free software.

Shareware and crippleware

Of course shareware is not free software either - the shareware owners exert their proprietary rights in asking for payment. There is no restriction on obtaining and trying shareware but the user is limited to the trial period (maybe by date or number of trials) before being required to pay a licensing fee for ongoing use of the software. Instead of being time-limited, shareware is sometimes limited by function - “crippled” - to encourage users to pay their license fees. So-called “crippleware” lets the user try all of the features offered by the program, except for one critical feature such as saving or printing.


When proprietary software is no longer being distributed or supported by the copyright owner, it may become known as abandonware. If we ignore that Windows is an ongoing product, we could say that Windows 95 has been abandonware for well over a year, Windows NT4 has just been abandoned, and Windows 98 will join them early next year. However, superceded versions of a currently available product are not usually considered abandonware.

Often it is old games that are the most sought after abandonware. Let’s face it, who wants to go back to VisiCalc? (Well, alright: if you must!) People want to recapture the lost delights of Pac-Man, Prince of Persia, or Pong look for them as abandonware.

Athough some copyright owners have released their old software to the public domain or as free software most abandonware is still subject to copyright and isn’t legal for unlicensed redistribution. This seems a bit sad. There is no monetary market for such software now, merely a bunch of ageing nerds looking for a nostalgia kick.


So there are several ways to think about the “free-ness” of software, and some aren’t immediately obvious. The subtle distinction between free software and open source software doesn’t help the situation, and the confusion between freeware and free software is practically inevitable. It all depends on what you mean by “free”.

Now, did someone mention free beer?

First published: PC Update Sept 2003 (online version updated)