Selling Free Software

Authors: Lloyd Hardy, Richard Stallman

Revision: 0.4 (2014/12/22)


6.0 – Selling Free Software

Selling free software is ok. That is because it is free - free from restriction that stops you from selling it. However, you might wonder how you can sell something that is freely available. In order to understand the difference, we first consider the restrictions of selling non-free software.


6.1 – Restrictions in Selling Non-Free Software

Non-free software is often sold in a box or as a download. Some kind of preventative method such as a serial may be used to stop the software functioning without payment or online authentication may be required, once payment is made. A large amount of resources are spent in the development of proprietary software just to restrict its use. This development effort is charged to the user as a part of the overall cost of the software. The consumer pays the proprietary software developer to restrict their freedom to use the software they are buying. In contrast for the four freedoms of Free Software, the four restrictions of non-Free software exist to buyers – a true case of 'buyer beware':


6.1.1 - Restriction 0: The buyer is not free to run the program for any purpose

Here, the author restricts the use of the software with any condition they choose. This impacts a software reseller who may be highly restricted in the geographical locations in which they are allowed to sell their stock. Other limitations the software reseller may have to consider might include:

  • amount of personnel employed in a client's business
  • amount of licenses required
  • type of business
  • the user's employment or academic status
  • using the software to create a stand-alone application
  • amount of computer systems on which the software is deployed
  • type of device
  • amount of hours the software is used for


6.1.2 - Restriction 1: The buyer is not free to study how the software works and to change it to make it do what they wish

In this case, author restricts the study and modification of the software. A student may be restricted from studying how the software works and from learning about it. This restricts innovation and denies the user access to knowledge, learning and understanding. In such a non-free system, each isolated development must either start from scratch or contain elements controlled by a third party which ultimately impacts the competitiveness of the software in the marketplace.

A reseller of non-free software may be restricted from modifying it. If the software is not available in a local language, it will remain unavailable until the author deploys the resources to localise the original version. If the market for a language of the software is not enticing to the non-free author, the software will never be available in that language.

A service provider may be restricted in their ability to customise non-free software for the user. This often results in inefficient business solutions and a poor experience for the user. A developer may not modify the software to support open standards and open file formats, leaving the user (and their data) locked into a proprietary file format.

6.1.3 - Restriction 2: The buyer is not free to redistribute copies

Here, the author denies the user the right to redistribute copies of the software. This means that if another user is unable to open a file that uses a proprietary standard – accessible only by using the software, then they the original user may not help them. This may be the recipient of an email attachment or file on writeable media. This makes the data contained in such a document restricted and under the legal control of the software author.

Logistically, the software cannot be re-used and another copy may be required. This may that, in an emergency – such as the loss or theft of equipment, the software cannot legally be deployed on replacement hardware. It may mean data cannot be transferred as a copy may not be allowed to reside on two computer systems simultaneously. For every copy sold, the store may need to order
new physical copies and wait for delivery. A user may need to travel a long distance to acquire software or may need to move a system to an Internet connection in order to download the software directly onto the desired computer. A user may not be able to afford the software and you cannot give them a copy, no matter how bad your desire or their need. A user may need the software for education – and you may be able to provide them with knowledge at no cost, but you cannot give them a copy of the software without complying with this restriction. The group activity which the user wishes to undertake with the software is directly controlled by the author in this restriction and this will deter groups and associations from buying the software from the author and having it installed as their chosen application.

The resale itself of legitimate copies (those which comply with all other restrictions of the software) may be restricted, causing the inability to sell the software at all.


6.1.4 - Restriction 3: The buyer is not free to redistribute modified versions to others

Here, the author denies the right of the developer to distribute their own work if it contains any part of the original author's code. This means that an entrepreneur is not free to use the software as a base for a new development. Functions may need to be rewritten, delaying the end-user's access to new and innovative software, potentially slowing economic growth in the sector which wishes to deploy the software.

If software is of a poor quality and has security or stability problems, a developer is unable to distribute 'fixed' versions under this  restriction. The developer may have found a modification that means users can access the software on a variety of platforms or have created extra functionality in the software. The user is denied access to this added value to the software and the reseller cannot
offer the buyer the opportunity to redistribute derivative works to their customers or friends, causing a dead-end to software innovation.
These limitations of non-free software may be imposed together or in any combination. As a business, orignal author or developer considering the sale or resale of software, these restrictions pose many challenges to the seller and the buyer, which will undoubtedly limit the amount of sales of the software.

Non-free software places one or more restrictions on the buyer. In many cases, the buyer is paying a premium for those restrictions to be imposed.


6.2 – Advantages of Selling Free Software

Free Software is the best software to sell – as it does not impose the restrictions of non-free software. Users can buy software that protects their freedoms – and the support this revenue offers software development is actively encouraged by GNU and the FSF [1].

Software sellers can sell software without restriction. The only requirement they have is to comply with the free software license under which the software author has released the software (eg. The GNU GPL). There are no license fees to pay to the author or associated restrictions.

Another advantage of selling free software is the level of community support that is often available for customers. Much proprietary software comes with support and because of the limited ability to study and understand the software, many bugs cannot be resolved. However, with free software, learning about the interface or source code of the system is future-proofed knowledge because it is free
knowledge. The consumer can be confident that they can always commission a developer or develop the software further to suit changes in their requirements or the software environment. The community support that can emerge through the provision of free software can be invaluable to the user.

The buyer doesn't have to face payments for software licensing. They can feel safe in the knowledge that any further expenditure can be directed towards improving the software for their own experience or towards investment in training to better experience the software.
Entrepreneurs will see the opportunities in free software. A primary concern of gratis software is that support may not be available – and configuration may be required. If something goes wrong or changes are needed to the software, the organisation may not have the technical expertise and may feel lost without an entity to turn to. These concerns, like all requirements, are business opportunities.


6.3 – Free Software Business Models

There are various approaches to selling free software. These include selling the software itself and selling services associated with free software.


6.3.1 – Distributing Copies of Free Software

You may decide to sell copies of free software which has been authored by someone else. In this case you will consider the requirement to make the source code available to the buyer. You may also include installation support in your business model, documentation, local availability, mail order and packaging. Some users would like a boxed version of software, may not have the available bandwidth to download online versions or may simply need the comfort or installation of software in a method they are used to. With free software, it is the buyer's choice as to if and why they buy the package you offer.


6.3.2 – Authoring Custom Free Software

You may be a software developer and provide custom software to businesses. The non-free model has become increasingly risky for a business to invest in as business software is no longer an external to the business infrastructure but an integral piece. Data enables a business to function and the storage and manipulation of that data is the role of software platforms and applications. The freedom that free software provides is highly appealing to those wishing to acquire custom business software in particular as the risk of being vendor-locked is removed.


6.3.3 – Free Software Customisation

The configuration of free software has become a business model as software projects have been created that can be applied to a range of users with varying requirements. An example would be a web development where a framework exists that suits the needs of the user but without configuration, the user would need to invest a large amount of time in technical training. A businesses that offers the technical ability to configure free software for a fee is a common business model.

6.3.4 – Free Software Consultancy

Businesses that change software systems need consultancy. An independent consultant should ensure that the requirements of the business are the first priority in providing consultation. Free software provides the business with the freedom to be less resistant to change and evolve dynamically with changing business requirements. A free software consultant can specialise in the selection and project planning of free software.


6.3.5 – Free Software Training

Using free software may require training. For example, the user of an office suite or image editor may be more productive if they knew about advanced features of the software. A business which offered on-site training and training resources (preferably under a free license) for free software is a simple and viable business model.

6.3.6 – Using Free Software To Provide a Service

A wide use of free software is that of providing a service. The service may be web hosting or a CV editing service. The service may run online, as a web application or it may be entirely offline. Here, free software can enhance the service by allowing clients to access data in other locations using the software and avail of open standard file formats. Revenue that may be traditional directed towards non-free software licensing may be used to enhance the software or provide better value for money for the user in other ways.

6.4 – Selling Free Cultural Works

We have focused on software of course at the FSU, however there is more to life than source code (this may come as a surprise to some of you!). The documentation we use and the works that we create beyond source code can also be released as 'Free Cultural Works' [2].

An example of free creative works may include an article, book, movie, song or an image which has been released under a free license. A buyer may require a print or physical copy of the work and there is an opportunity to create a business model around the meeting of these buyer needs.

As with software, there is also the opportunity for commissioned works to be free, for training and customisation business models to provide revenue streams from Free Cultural Works. When an innovative mind begins to consider the possibilities, it becomes apparent that they are endless...


[1] (Accessed: 2010/07/18)
[2] (Accessed: 2010/07/25)


Further Reading

Comparison of Licenses - Free Cultural Works,
Available from: Questions


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