Public domain software

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Public domain software is software that has been placed in the public domain, in other words there is absolutely no ownership such as copyright, trademark, or patent. Unlike other classes of licenses, there are no restrictions as to what can be done with the software. The software can be modified, distributed, or sold even without any attribution.

Under the Berne Convention, which most countries have signed, an author automatically obtains the exclusive copyright to anything they have written, and local law may similarly grant copyright, patent, or trademark rights by default. The Berne Convention also covers programs. Therefore, a program is automatically subject to a copyright, and if it is to be placed in the public domain, the author must explicitly disclaim the copyright and other rights on it in some way. In some regions, some rights (in particular moral rights) cannot be disclaimed.


Although there is not one universally agreed upon license, there are multiple licenses which fit all the requirements to release source code into the public domain.

Example Software[edit]

Main category: Public domain software

Misuse of the term[edit]

According to the Free Software Foundation, the phrase "public domain" is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to any software distributed under a free software license (free software), or distributed and usable free of charge (freeware). However, even when significant rights are granted (such as the freedom to modify and redistribute the software), some rights to the software are usually still be held by the author, and used, for example, for copyleft (in free software) or for prohibiting commercial use (in freeware). Such software is not in the public domain.

On a related note, an executable program may be in the public domain even if its source code is not made available (making the program non-free, because it is not feasibly modifiable). When the source code is available, the public domain program is noncopylefted free software.

Some of the confusion may arise from 1980s to 1990s software culture, in which "public domain" (usually abbreviated to "PD") software collections were a popular kind of "free software" in both the "gratis" and "libre" senses of the term, because the software was often written in an interpreted language such as BASIC in which the source code was needed to run the software.[citation needed]

In the 1980s, a common way to share public domain software[verification needed] was by receiving them through a local user group or a company like PC-SIG, of Sunnyvale, California, who maintained a mail-order catalog of more than 300 disks with an average price of US$6.[1]


  1. ^ Kristina B. Sullivan (1986-01-14). ""Hackers Create Public-Domain Software for the Sheer Joy of It."". PC Week 3 (2). pp. 121–122. 

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