ARCHIVED: What are shareware, freeware, and public domain programs?

Shareware, freeware, and public domain are software categories defined by how programs may be distributed, copied, used, and modified.


Shareware software is distributed at low (or sometimes no) cost, but usually requires payment and registration for full legal use. Copies are distributed on a trial basis. You are free to test the software, see if it matches your needs, and decide whether it's a good value. Order forms or advertisements included in the program or on the distribution disk usually tell you how to register the program and what fee is required. Registered users of a shareware program will typically receive a printed manual, an updated copy of the software, often with additional features, and the legal right to use the program in their home or business.

Shareware is not free software, since authors of shareware programs expect payment from those who intend to use the programs regularly. However, it does have the advantage over standard commercial software that you may thoroughly test a program to see if it's useful before making a purchase.

Shareware is generally written by individuals or small companies, and its quality and level of support vary widely. In some cases, however, shareware packages are actually more capable than corresponding commercial software, and some commercial programs got their start being marketed as shareware.

While shareware may be freely copied, companies may not charge fees for copies that significantly exceed their duplication and handling costs. The authors of shareware programs also retain their copyright on the contents, and you may not modify such programs or distribute modified copies.


Freeware is also distributed at minimal cost, but in this case the authors do not expect payment for their work. Typically, freeware programs are small utilities or incomplete programs that authors release for their potential benefit to others, but without support. The author of a freeware program may still retain a copyright on its contents and stipulate that others not modify the program or charge significant fees for its use or distribution.

Public domain software

Public domain software is not copyrighted. It is released without any conditions upon its use, and may be used without restriction. This type of software generally has the lowest level of support available.

Related software

Open-source software is jointly developed software that can be used, shared, borrowed, or changed without restriction. For more, see What is open source, and what is the Open Source Initiative?

Other programs may fall in between or overlap these categories. Some authors may ask for charitable donations in return for the use of their software. Still others may distribute free software as a form of advertising, sometimes called "bannerware".

If you purchase large volumes of low cost software for your personal computer, carefully study the accompanying license agreements and terms of use. Such software generally falls into these categories, and programs whose authors expect payment for their use should not be mistaken for free software.

This is document afdk in the Knowledge Base.
Last modified on 2013-01-07 00:00:00.

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