Public domain has a very specific legal meaning. It means that the creator of a work (in this case, software), who had legal ownership of that work, has given up ownership and dedicated the work “to the public domain”. Once something is in the public domain, anyone can use it in any way they choose, and the author has no control over the use and cannot demand payment for it.
If you find a program which the author has explicitly put into the public domain, you are free to use it however you see fit without paying for the right to use it. But use care - due to the confusion over the meaning of the words, programs are often described by authors as being “public domain” when, in fact, they are shareware or free, copyrighted software. To be sure a program is public domain, you should look for an explicit statement from the author to that effect.
Copyrighted is the opposite of public domain. A copyrighted program is one where the author has asserted his or her legal right to control the program’s use and distribution by placing the legally required copyright notices in the program and documentation. The law gives copyright owners broad rights to restrict how their work is distributed, and provides for penalties for those who violate these restrictions. When you find a program which is copyrighted, you must use it in accordance with the copyright owner’s restrictions regarding distribution and payment. Usually, these are clearly stated in the program documentation.
Maintaining a copyright does not necessarily imply charging a fee, so it is perfectly possible and legal to have copyrighted programs which are distributed free of charge. The fact that a program is free, however, does not mean it is in the public domain - though this is a common confusion.
Shareware is copyrighted software which is distributed by authors through bulletin boards, on-line services, disk vendors, and copies passed among friends. It is commercial software which you are allowed to use and evaluate before paying for it. This makes shareware the ultimate in money back guarantees.
Most money back guarantees work like this: You pay for the product and then have some period of time to try it out and see whether or not you like it. If you don’t like it or find that it doesn’t do what you need, you return it (undamaged) and at some point - which might take months - you get your money back. Some software companies won’t even let you try their product! In order to qualify for a refund, the diskette envelope must have an unbroken seal. With these “licensing” agreements, you only qualify for your money back if you haven’t tried the product. How absurd!
Shareware is very different. With shareware you get to use it for a limited time, without spending a penny. You are able to use the software on your own system(s), in your own special work environment, with no sales people looking over your shoulder. If you decide not to continue using it, you throw it away and forget all about it. No paperwork, phone calls, or correspondence to waste your valuable time. If you do continue using it, then - and only then - do you pay for it.
Shareware is a distribution method, NOT a type of software. Shareware is produced by accomplished programmers, just like retail software. There is good and bad shareware, just as there is good and bad retail software. The primary difference between shareware and retail software is that with shareware you know if it’s good or bad BEFORE you pay for it.
As a software user, you benefit because you get to use the software to determine whether it meets your needs before you pay for it, and authors benefit because they are able to get their products into your hands without the hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses it takes to launch a traditional retail software product. There are many programs on the market today which would never have become available without the shareware marketing method.
The shareware system and the continued availability of quality shareware products depend on your willingness to register and pay for the shareware you use. It’s the registration fees you pay which allow us to support and continue to develop our products.
Please show your support for shareware by registering those programs you actually use and by passing them on to others. Shareware is kept alive by YOUR support!