Proprietary software

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Proprietary software refers to software that severely restricts the right and options for reuse and further use, as well as changes and adaptations by users and third parties . Originally, this was due to the software's dependency on the hardware . The practice of keeping the source texts of computer programs under lock and key and thus " proprietary " in the narrower sense arose with the increasing public dissemination of computers with the same microprocessors in the early 1980s. There are many mechanisms that can make software "proprietary" and hold: by software patents , the copyright , license conditions ( EULA ), the build-up of software on proprietary, unpublished standards and the treatment of the source code as a trade secret ( English closed source ).


Until the late 1960s, computers were huge and expensive mainframe machines that operated in special air-conditioned rooms and were rented out rather than sold. Service and software were accessories and were provided at no extra cost until 1969. The source code of software was usually available. Users who developed software also made it available; There was a culture of open software and source text exchange (similar to the hacker culture). 1969 but opened IBM , under the pressure of a pending antitrust -Identification, a change in the development model: IBM unbundled software and hardware and software made for independent product. A second reason was the emergence of computers based on standardized microprocessors, which for the first time created a worldwide market for software distributed in binary format; Before that, there was a fragmented, incompatible computer market that was most likely to be addressed via the source code.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, most computer manufacturers began to keep the source code under lock and key. This was to prevent competitors from using the software on their systems. This proprietization of software quickly became the norm. Brewster Kahle later described the change in the legal characteristics of software as a consequence of the US Copyright Act of 1976 . Robert Landley names the change in the law of American copyright law, which from 1983 also granted copyright protection to binary programs, previously only the program source code had this . The "hacker culture" that had flourished up to then began to disintegrate. In this environment, Microsoft became a successful pioneer of the proprietary and commercial development and sales model for software without hardware, see also Bill Gates " Open Letter to Hobbyists " from 1976.

Beginning in February 1983, IBM introduced the "object-code-only" model, ie the marketing of software without source code, for a growing list of their software.

In 1980 Richard Stallman was employed with other programmers at MIT and discovered that for the first time they had been denied access to the source code of a newly installed printer device driver for the Xerox 9700 printer . Stallman had modified the drivers of previous printers (XGP, Xerographic Printer) in such a way that the user was notified electronically when the print job was completed or got stuck. The fact that it was now no longer possible to integrate these useful capabilities convinced Stallman of the need to keep software non-proprietary. This ultimately led to the creation of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its ongoing campaigns against proprietary software.

Origin of the term and definition of the FSF

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Richard Stallman, who coined and actively disseminate the term "proprietary software", mean software whose developers or distributors explicitly deprive end users of freedoms that, according to the FSF, should always be given with regard to software:

  • the freedom to examine and change the software (e.g. withdrawn due to the unavailability of the source code or non-disclosure agreements )
  • the freedom to pass on the software (e.g. withdrawn by prohibiting copying via EULA (End User License Agreement; contractual regulations) or non-disclosure agreements)
  • the freedom to run the software for any purpose (e.g. withdrawn due to usage restrictions via EULA)

That is why the FSF also describes proprietary software as unfree software , in the sense of a lack of freedom or software that deprives them of liberty. The FSF deliberately does not use the term "closed source software", which does not go far enough to describe the problem.

According to the FSF, proprietary software is also potentially malware because it cannot be analyzed due to the lack of source code and a user therefore has to blindly trust the provider. The FSF maintains an overview of proprietary software licenses (as well as non-proprietary ones).

The FSF sees the “ freedom granting software” (so-called free software ) as a counter-concept to proprietary software , ie software that grants a user the freedoms that the FSF considers essential upon receipt of the computer program.

Although commerciality is often associated with proprietarity, the FSF rejects the thesis that programmers are entitled to deprive users of freedoms in order to make a profit. However, the FSF is not against commercial software, but consistently supports the sale of software if this allows its recipients freedoms. Although the FSF also admits that the commercialization of free software is difficult, it sees the aspect of commerciality as independent of proprietarity.


The FSF defines proprietary software in such a way that it cannot be adapted and re-used by third parties at will, and sees a clear dualistic contrast to free software under “free licenses”. A decisive characteristic of “free software” as defined by the FSF is that its “free licenses” do not mean “everything is allowed” either. For example, non-proprietary, free software for third parties may have excluded the freedom to make software proprietary (e.g. through license changes) or to be used together with proprietary software. However, other requirements and restrictions are common; z. B. Copyleft Licenses; the GPL recommended by the FSF achieves this result.

The group of permissive licenses , also regarded as non-proprietary free software licenses, on the other hand, allow relicensing, but require the original authors to be named. Only software that has been actively released from copyright protection in the public domain or has been dropped due to expiry of protection periods ( public domain software) is without any restrictions and has thus lost all proprietary rights and allows "everything".

Others, such as the Open Source Initiative , see as a core feature of proprietary software, the non-availability of the source code, the alternative model would be open-source software ( English open source ).

For software whose source code is available and which allows further use for some, but not arbitrary, use cases ( semi-free software , sometimes also "source available" or "shared source"), there are controversial discussions about its classification. An example of such software would be Photoshop 1.0.1, the source code of which was published in 2013 under a license that allows any private use, but excludes commercial re-use and distribution. Another example is the computer game Allegiance, the source code of which was released under a non-commercial shared source license in 2004 and is now being developed further by the gaming community itself.

Proprietary software should also not be equated with commercial software. Commercial software that is sold or licensed to customers can be both proprietary and free software (mostly offered in combination with services ); the difference is that with proprietary software, resale and customization may be restricted or prohibited. Free proprietary software is called freeware .

The adjective “proprietary” can also be applied to protocols (such as for networks ), APIs and file formats .

Web links

Wiktionary: proprietary  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Examples of proprietary licenses:

  • Chapter 5 (of Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing)

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b c Rob Landley: 23-05-2009 . May 23, 2009. Retrieved December 2, 2015: “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 "
  2. S. Donovan: Patent, copyright and trade secret protection for software . Potentials, IEEE, 2002, doi: 10.1109 / 45.310923 .
  3. Paul E. Ceruzzi: A history of modern computing . MIT Press , 2003, ISBN 0-262-53203-4 , p. 128 (accessed on November 12, 2010): “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 business "
  4. ^ History of Leasing . Archived from the original on April 11, 2008. Retrieved November 12, 2010: “In the 1960s, 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 growth, since many companies were exposed to equipment leasing for the first time when they leased such equipment "
  5. Origins and History of the Hackers, 1961-1995 Eric S. Raymond : The Art of Unix Programming (English)
  6. ^ Chronological History of IBM - 1960s . IBM . Retrieved November 12, 2010: "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 leader "
  7. ^ Pugh, Emerson W. Origins of Software Bundling. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing , Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan – Mar 2002): pp. 57-58.
  8. Hamilton, Thomas W., IBM's unbundling decision: Consequences for users and the industry , Programming Sciences Corporation, 1969.
  9. ^ A b Bryan Cantrill: Corporate Open Source Anti-patterns . September 17, 2014. Accessed on December 26, 2015: "[at 3:15]"
  10. ^ A b John Gallant: IBM policy draws fire - Users say source code rules hamper change . Computerworld . March 18, 1985. Retrieved December 27, 2015: “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 "
  11. Robert X. Cringely's interview with Brewster Kahle , at the 46th minute (English)
  12. Impact of Apple vs. Franklin Decision
  13. ^ JTS Moore: Revolution OS . Ed .: Wonderview Productions. USA 2001 (English).
  14. ^ Williams, Sam: Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software . O'Reilly Media, 2002, ISBN 0-596-00287-4 . Chapter 1. Available under the GFDL in both the initial O'Reilly edition and the updated FAIFzilla edition . Both accessed October 27, 2006.
  15. Non-free software (also called proprietary software ); stands in contrast to free software (software that grants freedom) which grants freedoms: this is not about monetary aspects.
  16. Non- free software (
  17. Proprietary software is often malware (
  18. Software licenses on
  19. “Shouldn't a programmer be able to ask for a reward for his creativity?”
  20. Selling Free Software
  21. Interview with Richard Stallman ( English ) In: GNU / LAS s20e10 . Linux action show . March 11, 2012. Retrieved on August 22, 2014: " RMS : I'm not gone to claim that I got a way to make it easier to raise money to pay people who write free software. We all know, that to some extent there are ways to do that, but we all know that they are limited, they are not as broad as we would like. "
  22. Commercial software on
  23. Categories of free and non-free software: Proprietary software - page section at the FSF ; As of July 29, 2001.
  24. free licenses on
  25. Bryan Bishop: Adobe releases Photoshop original source code for developers nostalgic ( English ) February 14, 2013. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
  26. Adobe Photoshop Source Code
  27. Bob Colayco: Microsoft pledges Allegiance to its fanbase ( English ) February 6, 2004. Retrieved July 22, 2011: “The release of the source code came in response to the enthusiasm of Allegiance's small-but-dedicated fanbase. Microsoft's Joel Dehlin commented that the development team has, "been amazed at the level to which some of the Allegiance fans have remained hard-core. We're astounded at the progress that has been made at creating new factions, hosting new servers, replacing authentication, etc. It seems that Allegiance hasn't really died. With that in mind, we're releasing the Allegiance source code to the community. ""
  28. Debian Tutorial: 2.2 What's free software? (English) - page section at Debian ; As of December 29, 2009.
  29. proprietary software. In: Gartner IT Glossary. Gartner, Inc., accessed May 15, 2017 .