What is the difference between licensed, freeware and Open-Source software?


There are many definitions surrounding software that overlap and some have changed in usage over time. It can therefore be a little confusing and depends on who you are talking to as to what terms they use. Are they talking about freedom of cost or freedom of use?

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The term ‘free software’ is a little contentious. It was originally used in an academic sense, primarily involving “free software” as in freedom, not as in cost. Over time, the modern usage of the term ‘free software’ has become free of cost. The way to distinguish between them is to look at the licensing of the source code.


Closed source software

This type of software does not have its source code available for modification or redistribution but may still be available at no cost. Examples include Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office suite of applications.


No freedom, not free of cost

Closed source software is usually known as licensed software, proprietary software or shareware. The person who created it retains ownership of the copyright and distribution rights and can sell or give it away for free. You can purchase / rent / download the software for a period of use, during which time you must abide by the licensing agreement. It is a closed system and cannot be modified, redistributed, or reused without permission from the copyright holder. There may be a monetary cost for using the software, however, you have no freedom to change it.


    No freedom, yes free of cost

    The academic term for free of cost software is “freeware”. This is a no-cost license to a closed system. Freemium is also another cost related term. It is usually a piece of closed software that has a free trial or ‘lite’ versions of a full plugin or software. The hope is that you will use the free version and buy a full version.


    Open source software

    This type of software has its source code available for modification and distribution under various open source licenses such as GNU General Public License (GPL). The most popular examples include Linux and MySQL database systems.


    Yes freedom, not always free of cost

    The traditional academic definition of ‘Free software’ is related to freedom, not cost. Free software is also known as open source or libre. It is software that allows the unrestricted sharing, modification and redistribution of software code. F

    ree Software is defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as “software that respects your freedom”. Free Software is simply about the users having control over their computing resources: they can study how it works, change it so it does what they want and publish their changes so others can benefit from them.

    Open source software is often, but not always free of charge. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) defines Open Source as “a methodology for community development” and “an ethic that promotes free exchange of ideas”, particularly in relation to software. It is not a license itself but an assurance that the end product will behave according to specific principles.

    Still confused?

    As software, it’s usage, copyright and ‘software as a service’ has all evolved, so have the terms. One thing that holds true over time is that if something is totally free of cost, then you are probably paying another way. E.g. if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. A big example of this is Facebook. Facebook uses your data to sell advertising. I’m sure that as time goes on, there will be even more definitions in the future.

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