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The Column icon The Column: Issue 15

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Freeware and Freewhere
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Freeware seems on the face of it a simple idea: someone produces a software product and gives it away. There are however a range of interpretations of exactly what freeware is. Some developers of freeware hold the firm principled position that all freeware should be given without condition, others provide their freeware only on the proviso it is not used in a commercial context. Join me as I ponder about the world of freeware and present its sister service, freewhere...

The Tale of Two Bright Sparks

Freeware has featured at AbleStable ever since its launch and supports its aim by encouraging creativity. Freeware exerts a powerful democratising affect by providing tools that enable people to find their own voice and expression without any associated costs.

I began to get involved with the development of freeware after I came across a great program that backed up files from one location to another. SyncBack had recently been released by Michael J Leaver and I started using it to backup the numerous files that go to make up AbleStable. Within a week I'd made a small donation by way of appreciation of his work, and gave it a five star rating as it was such a usable and useful program.

Michael got back in contact with me and told me how, despite being downloaded tens of thousands of times, I was the first to donate. My experience of running AbleStable was also that people generally take, few give anything back. That doesn't stop the givers though... From that point on we began to work on the program together, improving the interface and developing its functions.

During this period we had no motivation other than to deliver a great freeware program, and certainly no intention of developing it as commercial software. However, after the launch of version 3 it was clear we had a huge success on our hands and we discussed what our next move should be. We wanted to improve SyncBack further, but the only way we'd achieve this was to spend a lot more time on its development and to use commercial components, and both of these plans would require a substantial investment. We therefore decided to continue to support the Freeware version with bug fixes, tutorials, a free forum and more, but we'd also develop SyncBack Pro which would ensure the project would be commercially viable. 2BrightSparks, our new company, was formed May 2004.

I wanted to recount this tale, not simply as a means of shamelessly promoting my commercial site, but to make users of AbleStable aware of my association with it. AbleStable is very much a site where content is free. My commercial work ensures it's future viability. AbleStable is an example of 'Freewhere'. 2BrightSparks is an illustration of how in some cases the development of Freeware takes on a life of its own and opens up unexpected avenues.

Definitions of Freeware

Freeware is defined in various ways depending on your philosophy, usage, and status. It's important not to confuse Freeware with Free Software. Free Software doesn't mean free in the financial sense, but rather it applies to distribution, exchanging code, innovation, and is often released under a 'General Public Licence' (this is sometimes refereed to as a 'GPL' or GNU license).

The GNU license aims to protect user rights, and makes restrictions that result in certain responsibilities that users of software carrying a GNU license must observe. If you use GNU software and choose to distribute copies or modify it, you must abide by its license agreement. The important issue to remember is that software released under the GNU license may be used to produce a commercial product. In contrast, Freeware is not a commercial product in the sense that it is sold, although it may well be used to promote commercial interests.

So, back to a definition of what Freeware is rather than what it isn't. The following definition is a black and white interpretation: Freeware:

Is software that requires no payments in any form.
Does not have registration requirements.
Can be used in personal, educational, charity, and commercial contexts.
Does not come with spyware, adware, or mailware bundled inside it.
Has all its features fully working.
Is not time limited (not a Demo or Trial).
Does not require payment for access to support information.
Allows you to freely share the program with friends, family and colleagues.

The essential difference between this and a more flexible definition centres around its use in a commercial context, and its functionality. The following kinds of qualifications are often applied to freeware:

Installing and using this freeware on a commercially used computer is prohibited.

The functions of this Freeware are limited as compared with its commercial counterpart.
The freeware notices that appear in the program are removed in the commercial version.
All requests for donations are removed in the commercial version.

There are many examples of freeware that require these and other qualifications in their use, despite the protest of some freeware developers and users who argue such programs should be promoted as software that is 'free for non-commercial use' rather than 'freeware'.

There are however no rule books that govern the definition of words like 'freeware'. We perhaps view certain 'authorities' as more valuable than others. For example, many view the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the preeminent dictionary of the English Language, however even this illustrious publication cannot be viewed as supplying 'true' definitions of words.

English is an international language and there are often significant regional differences in language usage which undermine the clarity of a reference tool like the OED. A new version of the OED takes many years to create and is therefore behind the times in terms of current language usage. Add to this the fact that other reference works like The Collins English Language Dictionary present often more lucid and valuable definitions, and it's clear that defining anything is problematic. All we can do is to agree generally on the meaning of things, but as time passes we change our understanding of the world and our definitions of it.

Freeware then, like any other word, is defined according to our own perspective. You may wish it to have certain 'principled' qualities and qualifications that accompany it, but it is what it is to each individual. Some will qualify its use, others will not. You may value one kind of freeware above another, but like most things, it comes in all shapes and sizes.

The Freeware License

An example of a freeware license that was developed for 2BrightSparks addresses issues that are important for any software and presents a broad use freeware policy:


2BrightSparks grants you a limited non-exclusive license to use FREEWARE downloadable from 2BrightSparks for personal, educational, charity, and commercial use, and donations are entirely optional.

If you are using the SOFTWARE free of charge under the terms of this Agreement, you are not entitled to support although we will respond to support requests if they relate to any SOFTWARE that is not performing it's task correctly (bugs etc).

Our Freeware is licensed to you in accordance with the terms and conditions of this Agreement. You represent and warrant that you will not violate any of the requirements of this Agreement and further represent and warrant that:

- You will not, and will not permit others to:

(i) reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, derive the source code of, modify, or create derivative works from our Freeware, or

(ii) copy, distribute, publicly display, or publicly perform content contained in this Freeware other than as expressly authorized by this Agreement.

- You will not use our Freeware to engage in or allow others to engage in any illegal activity.

- You will not engage in using our Freeware that will interfere with or damage the operation of the services of any third parties by overburdening/disabling network resources through automated queries, excessive usage or similar conduct.

- You will not sell our Freeware or charge others for use of it (either for profit or merely to recover your media and distribution costs) whether as a stand-alone product, or as part of a compilation or anthology, without explicit prior written permission.

- You will not use our Freeware to engage in any activity that will violate the rights of third parties, including, without limitation, through the use, public display, public performance, reproduction, distribution, or modification of communications or materials that infringe copyrights, trademarks, publicity rights, privacy rights, other proprietary rights, or rights against defamation of third parties.

- You may not claim any sponsorship by, endorsement by, or affiliation with our company.

Freeware and Freewhere: The Essential Difference

Freeware is a software tool that can be used to increase profit for little or no effort. In contrast Freewhere is a 'destination of resources' that may include tools that can be used in this way, but more often provides 'passive resources' like the column you are reading.

Passive resources can not in themselves produce products or services that can then be sold unless they are plagiarised. I believe this to be a significant distinction and one that highlights why I feel it is ethically justifiable to restrict the use of freeware in a commercial setting.

Freeware can be used to directly increase the profit of a commercial entity, and it is therefore arguable that commercial businesses have an ethical responsibility to contribute to its ongoing development if requested to do so. In my view this does not change the status of freeware into commercial software. Making a donation to a freeware author however should remain voluntary, as otherwise its status does change to being shareware or commercial software.


Freeware is motivated by differing aims. Those that suggest its development is purely altruistic are mistaken. Many companies use freeware as a powerful marketing tool and I believe users are well aware of this.

While I accept people have a right to define, develop, and release freeware under a particular license, I do not accept that commercial businesses have an inalienable right to use it. Rights and the definition of those rights must always rest with the author.

The two great forces of Freeware and Freewhere are here to stay and will continue to open opportunities that encourage us to explore and develop our own potentials...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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