Proprietary software is non-free computer software for which the
software's publisher or another person retains intellectual property
rights—usually copyright of the source code, but sometimes patent
1 Software becoming proprietary
2 Legal basis
3 Exclusive rights
3.1 Use of the software
3.2 Inspection and modification of source code
4 Interoperability with software and hardware
4.1 Proprietary file formats and protocols
4.2 Proprietary APIs
4.3 Vendor lock-in
4.4 Software limited to certain hardware configurations
5 Abandonment by owners
6 Formerly open-source software
7 Pricing and economics
9 See also
Software becoming proprietary
Until the late 1960s computers—large and expensive mainframe
computers, machines in specially air-conditioned computer rooms—were
leased to customers rather than sold. Service and all software
available were usually supplied by manufacturers without separate
charge until 1969. Computer vendors usually provided
the source code for installed software to customers.
Customers who developed software often made it available to others
without charge. Closed source means computer programs whose source
code is not published. It is available to be edited only by the
organization by which it is developed.
In 1969, IBM, which had antitrust lawsuits pending against it, led an
industry change by starting to charge separately for mainframe
software[page needed] and services, by unbundling hardware
Bill Gates' "Open Letter to Hobbyists" in 1976 decried computer
hobbyists' rampant copyright infringement of software, particularly
Altair BASIC interpreter, and reminded his audience that
their theft from programmers hindered his ability to produce quality
Brewster Kahle the legal characteristic of software
changed also due to the U.S.
Copyright Act of 1976.
Starting in February 1983
IBM adopted an "object-code-only" model for
a growing list of their software and stopped shipping source
In 1983, binary software became also copyrightable in the United
States by the Apple vs. Franklin law decision, before that only
source code was copyrightable. Additionally, the growing
availability of millions of computers based on the same microprocessor
architecture created for the first time an unfragmented and big enough
market for binary distributed software.
Further information: Software law, Software copyright, Software
patent, and End-user license agreement
Most software is covered by copyright which, along with contract law,
patents, and trade secrets, provides legal basis for its owner to
establish exclusive rights.
license agreement (EULA). The user may agree to this contract in
writing, interactively on screen (clickwrap), or by opening the box
containing the software (shrink wrap licensing). License agreements
are usually not negotiable. Software patents grant exclusive
rights to algorithms, software features, or other patentable subject
matter, with coverage varying by jurisdiction. Vendors sometimes grant
patent rights to the user in the license agreement. The source
code for a piece of software is routinely handled as a trade
secret. Occasionally, software is made available with fewer
restrictions on licensing or source-code access; such software is
known as "free" or "open-source."
Because license agreements do not override applicable copyright law or
contract law, provisions in conflict with applicable law are not
enforceable. Some software is specifically licensed and not sold,
in order to avoid limitations of copyright such as the first-sale
The owner of proprietary software exercises certain exclusive rights
over the software. The owner can restrict use, inspection of source
code, modification of source code, and redistribution.
Use of the software
Further information: Copy protection, Damaged good, and Price
Vendors typically limit the number of computers on which software can
be used, and prohibit the user from installing the software on extra
computers. Restricted use is sometimes enforced
through a technical measure, such as product activation, a product key
or serial number, a hardware key, or copy protection.
Vendors may also distribute versions that remove particular features,
or versions which allow only certain fields of endeavor, such as
non-commercial, educational, or non-profit use.
Use restrictions vary by license:
Windows Vista Starter
Windows Vista Starter is restricted to running a maximum of three
The retail edition of
Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 is
limited to non-commercial use on up to three devices in one household.
Windows XP can be installed on one computer, and limits the number of
network file sharing connections to 10. The Home Edition disables
features present in
Windows XP Professional.
Traditionally, Adobe licenses are limited to one user, but allow the
user to install a second copy on a home computer or laptop. This
is no longer true with the switching to Creative Cloud.
iWork '09, Apple's productivity suite, is available in a five-user
family pack, for use on up to five computers in a household.
Inspection and modification of source code
See also: Open source and Anti-features
Vendors typically distribute proprietary software in compiled form,
usually the machine language understood by the computer's central
processing unit. They typically retain the source code, or
human-readable version of the software, written in a higher level
programming language. This scheme is often referred to as closed
While most proprietary software is distributed without the source
code, some vendors distribute the source code or otherwise make it
available to customers. For example, users who have purchased a
license for the Internet forum software vBulletin can modify the
source for their own site but cannot redistribute it. This is true for
many web applications, which must be in source code form when being
run by a web server. The source code is covered by a non-disclosure
agreement or a license that allows, for example, study and
modification, but not redistribution. The text-based
email client Pine and certain implementations of
Secure Shell are
distributed with proprietary licenses that make the source code
Some governments fear that proprietary software may include defects or
malicious features which would compromise sensitive information. In
Microsoft established a Government Security Program (GSP) to
allow governments to view source code and
documentation, of which the Chinese government was an early
participant. The program is part of Microsoft's broader Shared
Source Initiative which provides source code access for some products.
The Reference Source License (Ms-RSL) and Limited Public License
(Ms-LPL) are proprietary software licenses where the source code is
Governments have also been accused of adding such malware to software
themselves. According to documents released by Edward Snowden, the NSA
has used covert partnerships with software companies to make
commercial encryption software exploitable to eavesdropping, or to
Software vendors sometimes use obfuscated code to impede users who
would reverse engineer the software. This is
particularly common with certain programming languages.[citation
needed] For example, the bytecode for programs written in Java can be
easily decompiled to somewhat usable code, and the
source code for programs written in scripting languages such as
Further information: Shareware
See also: Freely redistributable software
Proprietary software vendors can prohibit users from sharing the
software with others. Another unique license is required for another
party to use the software.
In the case of proprietary software with source code available, the
vendor may also prohibit customers from distributing their
modifications to the source code.
Shareware is closed-source software whose owner encourages
redistribution at no cost, but which the user sometimes must pay to
use after a trial period. The fee usually allows use by a single user
or computer. In some cases, software features are restricted during or
after the trial period, a practice sometimes called crippleware.
Interoperability with software and hardware
Further information: Interoperability of software
Proprietary file formats and protocols
Proprietary format and Proprietary protocol
Proprietary software often stores some of its data in
file formats which are incompatible with other software, and may also
communicate using protocols which are incompatible. Such formats and
protocols may be restricted as trade secrets or subject to
A proprietary application programming interface (API) is a software
library interface "specific to one device or, more likely to a number
of devices within a particular manufacturer's product range." The
motivation for using a proprietary API can be vendor lock-in or
because standard APIs do not support the device's functionality.
The European Commission, in its March 24, 2004 decision on Microsoft's
business practices, quotes, in paragraph 463,
C++ development Aaron Contorer as stating in a February
21, 1997 internal
Microsoft memo drafted for Bill Gates:
Windows API is so broad, so deep, and so functional that most ISVs
would be crazy not to use it. And it is so deeply embedded in the
source code of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost
to using a different operating system instead.
Early versions of the iPhone SDK were covered by a non-disclosure
agreement. The agreement forbade independent developers from
discussing the content of the interfaces. Apple discontinued the NDA
in October 2008.
Further information: Vendor lock-in
A dependency on the future versions and upgrades for a proprietary
software package can create vendor lock-in, entrenching a monopoly
Software limited to certain hardware configurations
Proprietary software may also have licensing terms that limit the
usage of that software to a specific set of hardware. Apple has such a
licensing model for Mac OS X, an operating system which is limited to
Apple hardware, both by licensing and various design decisions. This
licensing model has been affirmed by the
United States Court of
Abandonment by owners
Main article: Abandonware
Proprietary software which is no longer marketed, supported or sold by
its owner is called abandonware, the digital form of orphaned works.
If the proprietor of a software package should cease to exist, or
decide to cease or limit production or support for a proprietary
software package, recipients and users of the package may have no
recourse if problems are found with the software. Proprietors can fail
to improve and support software because of business problems.
Support for older or existing versions of a software package may be
ended to force users to upgrade and pay for newer versions
(planned obsolescence). Sometimes another vendor or a software's
community themselves can provide support for the software, or the
users can migrate to either competing systems with longer support life
cycles or to FOSS-based systems.
Some closed-source software is released by their owner at end-of-life
as open-source or source available software, often to prevent the
software from becoming unsupported and unavailable
3D Realms and id Software are famous for the
practice of releasing closed source software into the open
source.[further explanation needed] Some of those kinds are
free-of-charge downloads (freeware), some are still commercially sold
(e.g. Arx Fatalis).[further explanation needed] More examples of
formerly closed-source software in the List of commercial software
with available source code and List of commercial video games with
available source code.
Formerly open-source software
See also: List of formerly proprietary software
Some formerly open-source software was made proprietary later.
Sometimes for commercialization reasons, sometimes as security or
anti-cheat measurement (Security through obscurity). A famous example
of such is the
Doom source port
ZDaemon which was prone to aimbot
Pricing and economics
See also: Commercial software
Proprietary software is not synonymous with commercial
software, although the two terms are sometimes used
synonymously in articles about free software. Proprietary
software can be distributed at no cost or for a fee, and free software
can be distributed at no cost or for a fee. The difference is that
whether or not proprietary software can be distributed, and what the
fee would be, is at the proprietor's discretion. With free software,
anyone who has a copy can decide whether, and how much, to charge for
a copy or related services.
Proprietary software that comes for no cost is called freeware.
Proponents of commercial proprietary software argue that requiring
users to pay for software as a product increases funding or time
available for the research and development of software. For example,
Microsoft says that per-copy fees maximise the profitability of
Proprietary software generally creates greater commercial activity
over free software, especially in regard to market revenues.
Examples of proprietary software include
Microsoft Windows, Adobe
Flash Player, PS3 OS, iTunes, Adobe Photoshop, Google Earth, macOS
(formerly Mac OS X and OS X), Skype, WinRAR, Oracle's version of Java
and some versions of Unix.
Software distributions considered as proprietary may in fact
incorporate a "mixed source" model including both free and non-free
software in the same distribution. Most if not all so-called
UNIX distributions are mixed source software, bundling
open-source components like BIND, Sendmail, X Window System, DHCP, and
others along with a purely proprietary kernel and system
Some free software packages are also simultaneously available under
proprietary terms. Examples include MySQL,
Sendmail and ssh. The
original copyright holders for a work of free software, even copyleft
free software, can use dual-licensing to allow themselves or others to
redistribute proprietary versions. Non-copyleft free software (i.e.
software distributed under a permissive free software license or
released to the public domain) allows anyone to make proprietary
Free software that depends on proprietary
software is considered "trapped" by the Free Software Foundation. This
includes software written only for
Microsoft Windows, or software
that could only run on Java, before it became free software.
In India, one and a half million laptops were pre-loaded with screen
savers of political minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. The author of
software developed for these laptops included a malicious feature that
would "crash" the device if the laptop's owner attempted to change,
remove, or modify this feature.
Look up proprietary or software in Wiktionary, the free
Comparison of open-source and closed-source software
List of proprietary software for Linux
^ Saraswati Experts. "2.5.3". COMPUTER SCIENCE WITH C++. Saraswati
House Pvt Ltd. p. 1.27. ISBN 978-93-5199-877-8. Retrieved 29
^ AUUG, Inc. (March 2003). "Chapter 1. Definitions". AUUGN. AUUG, Inc.
p. 51. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
^ Ceruzzi, Paul E. (2003). A History of Modern Computing. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press. p. 128. ISBN 0-262-53203-4. Although IBM
agreed to sell its machines as part of a Consent Decree effective
January 1956, leasing continued to be its preferred way of doing
^ "The History of Equipment Leasing",
Lease Genie, n.d., archived from
the original on April 11, 2008, retrieved November 12, 2010, In the
IBM and Xerox recognized that substantial sums could be made
from the financing of their equipment. The leasing of computer and
office equipment that occurred then was a significant contribution to
leasings [sic] growth, since many companies were exposed to equipment
leasing for the first time when they leased such equipment.
^ "Overview of the GNU System". GNU Operating System. Free Software
Foundation. 16 June 2016. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
^ Pugh, Emerson W. (2002). Origins of Software Bundling. IEEE Annals
of the History of Computing. 24. pp. 57–58.
^ Hamilton, Thomas W. (1969). IBM's Unbundling Decision: Consequences
for Users and the Industry. Programming Sciences Corporation.
IBM (n.d.). "Chronological History of IBM: 1960s". Retrieved May 28,
2016. Rather than offer hardware, services and software exclusively in
packages, marketers 'unbundled' the components and offered them for
sale individually. Unbundling gave birth to the multibillion-dollar
software and services industries, of which
IBM is today a world
^ Gates, Bill (February 3, 1976). "An Open Letter to Hobbyists".
Retrieved May 28, 2016.
^ Robert X. Cringely's interview with Brewster Kahle, 46th minute
^ Cantrill, Bryan (2014-09-17). "Corporate Open Source Anti-patterns"
(video). youtube.com. Retrieved 2015-12-26. [at 3:15]
^ Gallant, John (1985-03-18). "
IBM policy draws fire - Users say
source code rules hamper change". Computerworld. Retrieved 2015-12-27.
While IBM's policy of withholding source code for selected software
products has already marked its second anniversary, users are only now
beginning to cope with the impact of that decision. But whether or not
the advent of object-code-only products has affected their day-to-day
DP operations, some users remain angry about IBM's decision. Announced
in February 1983, IBM's object-code-only policy has been applied to a
growing list of Big Blue system software products
^ Impact of Apple vs. Franklin Decision
^ a b Landley, Rob (2009-05-23). "23-05-2009". landley.net. Retrieved
2015-12-02. So if open source used to be the norm back in the 1960's
and 70's, how did this _change_? Where did proprietary software come
from, and when, and how? How did Richard Stallman's little utopia at
the MIT AI lab crumble and force him out into the wilderness to try to
rebuild it? Two things changed in the early 80's: the exponentially
growing installed base of microcomputer hardware reached critical mass
around 1980, and a legal decision altered copyright law to cover
binaries in 1983. Increasing volume: The microprocessor creates
millions of identical computers
^ Liberman, Michael (1995). "Overreaching Provisions in Software
License Agreements". Richmond Journal of Law and Technology. 1: 4.
Retrieved November 29, 2011.
^ Limitations and Exceptions to
Copyright and Neighbouring Rights in
the Digital Environment: An International Library Perspective (2004).
IFLA (2013-01-22). Retrieved on 2013-06-16.
^ Daniel A. Tysver (2008-11-23). "Why Protect Software Through
Patents". Bitlaw.com. Retrieved 2009-06-03. In connection with
software, an issued patent may prevent others from utilizing a certain
algorithm (such as the GIF image compression algorithm) without
permission, or may prevent others from creating software programs that
perform a function in a certain way. In connection with computer
software, copyright law can be used to prevent the total duplication
of a software program, as well as the copying of a portion of software
^ Donovan, S. (1994). "Patent, copyright and trade secret protection
for software". Potentials, IEEE. 13 (3): 20. doi:10.1109/45.310923.
Essentially there are only three ways to protect computer software
under the law: patent it, register a copyright for it, or keep it as a
^ Eben Moglen (2005-02-12). "Why the FSF gets copyright assignments
from contributors". Retrieved 2009-06-26. Under US copyright law,
which is the law under which most free software programs have
historically been first published, [...] only the copyright holder or
someone having assignment of the copyright can enforce the
^ White, Aoife (2012-07-03). "Oracle Can't Stop Software License
Resales, EU Court Says". Bloomberg.
Microsoft Corporation (2005-04-01). "End-User License Agreement for
Windows XP Professional Edition Service
Pack 2" (PDF). p. Page 3. Retrieved 2009-04-29.
Microsoft Corporation (2005-04-01). "End-User License Agreement for
Windows XP Professional Edition Service
Pack 2" (PDF). p. Page 1. Retrieved 2009-04-29. You may install,
use, access, display and run one copy of the Software on a single
computer, such as a workstation, terminal or other device
(“Workstation Computer”). The Software may not be used by more
than two (2) processors at any one time on any single Workstation
Computer. ... You may permit a maximum of ten (10) computers or other
electronic devices (each a 'Device') to connect to the Workstation
Computer to utilize one or more of the following services of the
File Services, Print Services, Internet Information
Services, Internet Connection Sharing and telephony services.
^ Adobe Systems, Adobe Software License Agreement (PDF), retrieved
^ iWork '09 Family Pack Specs (complete package) - Presentation - CNET
Reviews. Reviews.cnet.com. Retrieved on 2013-06-16.
^ Heffan, Ira V. (1997). "Copyleft: Licensing Collaborative Works in
the Digital Age" (PDF). Stanford Law Review. 49: 1490. Under the
proprietary software model, most software developers withhold their
source code from users.
^ David A. Wheeler (2009-02-03). "Free-Libre / Open Source Software
(FLOSS) is Commercial Software". Retrieved 2009-06-03.
^ Shankland, Stephen. "Governments to see Windows code". CNET.
^ Gao, Ken. "China to view Windows code". CNET.
^ James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald (2013-09-06). "US and
UK spy agencies defeat privacy and security on the internet". The
^ Bruce Schneier (2013-09-06). "How to remain secure against NSA
surveillance". The Guardian.
^ Tony Patton (2008-11-21). "Protect your
obfuscation". Retrieved 2009-06-12. While the Web promotes the sharing
of such code, there are times when you or a client may not want to
of data within the code, proprietary calculations, or any other
^ a b APIs: What they are, and what they're for - Feature -
Techworld.com. Features.techworld.com. Retrieved on 2013-06-16.
^ "Commission Decision of 24.03.2004 relating to a proceeding under
Article 82 of the EC Treaty (Case COMP/C-3/37.792 Microsoft)" (PDF).
European Commission. March 24, 2004. Archived from the original (PDF)
on October 28, 2008. Retrieved June 17, 2009.
^ Wilson, Ben (2008-10-01). "Apple Drops NDA for Released iPhone
Software". CNET Reviews. Retrieved 2010-12-17.
^ The Linux Information Project (2006-04-29). "Vendor Lock-in
Definition". Retrieved 2009-06-11. Vendor lock-in, or just lock-in, is
the situation in which customers are dependent on a single
manufacturer or supplier for some product [...] This dependency is
typically a result of standards that are controlled by the vendor
[...] It can grant the vendor some extent of monopoly power [...] The
best way for an organization to avoid becoming a victim of vendor
lock-in is to use products that conform to free, industry-wide
standards. Free standards are those that can be used by anyone and are
not controlled by a single company. In the case of computers, this can
usually be accomplished by using free software rather than proprietary
software (i.e., commercial software).
^ Apple wins key battle against Psystar over Mac clones (2011-09-29).
"Apple court victory over Pystar". Retrieved 2011-09-30.
^ "What happens when a proprietary software company dies?". NewsForge.
October 2003. Retrieved 2007-03-05.
Microsoft Turns Up The Heat On Windows 2000 Users".
InformationWeek. December 2006. Retrieved 2008-09-16.
^ Cassia, Fernando (March 28, 2007). "Open Source, the only weapon
against 'planned obsolescence'". The Inquirer. Retrieved August 2,
^ Bell, John (October 1, 2009). "Opening the Source of Art".
Technology Innovation Management Review. Archived from the original on
March 30, 2014. Retrieved December 30, 2012. [...]that no further
patches to the title would be forthcoming. The community was
predictably upset. Instead of giving up on the game, users decided
that if Activision wasn't going to fix the bugs, they would. They
wanted to save the game by getting Activision to open the source so it
could be kept alive beyond the point where Activision lost interest.
With some help from members of the development team that were active
on fan forums, they were eventually able to convince Activision to
release Call to Power II's source code in October of 2003.
^ Wen, Howard (June 10, 2004). "Keeping the Myths Alive".
linuxdevcenter.com. Archived from the original on April 6, 2013.
Retrieved December 22, 2012. [...]fans of the Myth trilogy have taken
this idea a step further: they have official access to the source code
for the Myth games. Organized under the name MythDevelopers, this
all-volunteer group of programmers, artists, and other talented people
devote their time to improving and supporting further development of
the Myth game series.
^ Largent, Andy (October 8, 2003). "Homeworld Source Code Released".
www.insidemacgames.com. Archived from the original on October 12,
2013. Retrieved November 24, 2012. With the release of Homeworld 2 for
the PC, Relic Entertainment has decided to give back to their
impressive fan community by releasing the source code to the original
ZDaemon Starting with the 1.07 release in July 2005, the ZDaemon
project does not make the source code available anymore and has
remained closed source from that point forward
^ Rosen, Lawrence (2004). Open Source Licensing. Upper Saddle River:
Prentice Hall. pp. 52, 255, 259.
^ Havoc Pennington (2008-03-02). "Debian Tutorial". Retrieved
2009-06-04. It is important to distinguish commercial software from
Proprietary software is non-free software, while
commercial software is software sold for money.
^ Russell McOrmond (2000-01-04). "What is "Commercial Software"?".
^ Michael K. Johnson (1996-09-01). "Licenses and Copyright". Retrieved
2009-06-16. If you program for Linux, you do need to understand
licensing, no matter if you are writing free software or commercial
^ Eric S. Raymond (2003-12-29). "Proprietary, Jargon File". Retrieved
Proprietary software should be distinguished from
commercial software. It is possible for software to be commercial
[...] without being proprietary. The reverse is also possible, for
example in binary-only freeware.
Free Software Foundation
Free Software Foundation (2008-12-31). "Selling Free Software".
^ "The Commercial Software Model". Microsoft. May 2001. Retrieved
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Here to Stay". Sams Publishing. October 2005. Retrieved
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^ Loftus, Jack (2007-02-19). "LinuxWorld: Managing mixed source
software stacks". SearchEnterpriseLinux.com.
^ Tan, Aaron (2006-12-28). "Novell: We're a 'mixed-source' company".
CNET Networks, Inc.
^ Rosenberg, Donald (2000). Open Source: The Unauthorized White
Papers. Foster City: IDG. p. 109. ISBN 0-7645-4660-0.
^ "Categories of Free and Non-Free Software - Free Software
Free Software Foundation
Free Software Foundation (2009-05-05). "Frequently Asked Questions
about the GNU Licenses". Retrieved 2009-06-25.
^ Richard Stallman (2004-04-12). "Free But Shackled - The Java Trap".
^ Nelson, David (15 Mar 2013). "Indian laptops that crash if users try
to remove pictures of minister". Telegraph. London.
Free and open-source
Pay what you want
Software as a service
Deceptive and/or illicit
Unwanted software bundling
Software release life cycle
Digital rights management
Software protection dongle
Free and open-source software
Alternative terms for free software
Comparison of open-source and closed-source software
Comparison of source code hosting facilities
Free software project directories
Gratis versus libre
Open-source software development
Content management systems
Free software movement
Open-source software movement
Free Software Foundation
Python Software Foundation License
Comparison of free and open-source software licenses
Contributor License Agreement
Debian Free Software Guidelines
Definition of Free Cultural Works
The Free Software Definition
The Open Source Definition
Permissive software licence
Digital rights management
Mozilla software rebranding
The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Microsoft Open Specification Promise