What’s really in a software licence?

GNU logoIf you’re a frequent software downloader, then you’ll be aware of terms such as “Freeware”, “Shareware”, “Beta Version”, “Demo” etc. But do you really understand what they mean? Licenses are certainly nothing to be taken lightly as the the UK National Consumer Council recently highlighted in its claim that software licenses are “Misleading, burdensome and unbalanced”. They were in fact referring to big players such as Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec but the same questions could be asked of developers no matter how big or small.

In their study, “Who’s licence is it anyway?”, the NCC appeals to both the Office of Fair Trading and European Union to take action stating that:

Consumers can’t have a clue what they’re signing up to when some terms and conditions run to 10 or more pages. There’s a significant imbalance between the rights of the consumer and the rights of the holder.

It also adds its concern about the contract that users are bound to when they install a product:

Installation requires the user to agree to nonnegotiable terms set out in a licence agreement – the ‘terms and conditions’. These licence agreements are more like legal mandates than consumer options, raising concerns about the extent to which they favour the producer over the consumer.

With these concerns in mind, it’s worth knowing exactly what you are signing up for when you install a piece of software. Of course when you download something from Softonic, the license refers only to the commercial use of the product – is it a full version, can it be distributed freely, do you have to pay to use it etc. Here then is a lowdown to the meanings of the types of licenses you frequently encounter when downloading software:

Freeware – There is no exact accepted definition of this term but it generally refers to software than can be distributed freely (i.e. no need to pay the developer a licence fee) without modification. Note that despite the terms “free”, it does not necessarily mean that the program is free to download or use. Most software on Softonic falls under this category or Shareware.

Shareware – Software that can be distributed but requires the user to pay a licence fee to the developer. Usually the source code is not available so you can’t modify the software. Often you can download a demonstration version for free but are required to pay a licence to continue using it.

Demo – Solely a demonstration version of the software – usually for free and valid for a limited period of time – but not a full version. To access the full version, usually you have to pay a fee or download it separately.

Adware – Software that is usually completely free but also contains advertising to pay for it. The distribution rights depend on the developer. The good thing is it’s free to use but the obvious downside is that you may be plagued with adverts.

GPL/GNU – ‘General Public Licence’ – the most libertarian form of software you can download. It is totally free, the source code is readily available for you to modify and you can distribute it without a licence for free. A famous popular example of this kind of software is Linux.

BSD – ‘Berkley Software Distribution’, which is a Unix like operating system for which the licence is specifically named. Very similar to GPL/GNU although it offers total freedom of distribution and modification (even the licence can be modified to your own terms) whereas the former can occasionally impose limited restrictions based on the developers wants and requirements.

Beta Version – A program that’s still not complete and may be downloaded as a prototype. Developers usually allow you to download this for free and hope that you will report to them bugs and problems so they can fix them for the final release, but warn against Betas being used on essential computer systems – they are more liable to crash than final release editions. Rules on distribution and licensing depend on the developer.

Remember that if you are ever in doubt over the licensing status of a piece of software, it’s best to contact the developers directly to find out.

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