You've developed a software program that you want to offer as freeware, but you're worried about whether you're risking your ownership rights to the software if you do so. In fact, ownership of copyright is not an issue. Freeware is entitled to the same copyright protection as any other type of intellectual property.
The term "freeware" is credited to Andrew Fluegelman, the founding editor of "PC World" and "Macworld" magazines, who coined the term in the 1980s. Freeware, also sometimes called open source software, is software for which the creator has granted unlimited permission with no time limit to personal users to make copies, share the software with other users and even change the software to create new software derived from freeware code. In fact, many freeware programmers encourage users to change the code. One popular open source software program is the Mozilla Firefox Internet browser.
Although by definition, freeware grants a liberal license to private users, freeware developers retain the copyright to their software, and many freeware developers place some restrictions on the use of their software programs. For instance, freeware users are not usually permitted to charge high prices for new software programs developed using freeware code. Freeware users are also restricted from using freeware code to create proprietary software. Proprietary software is developed from source code that is not made freely available to other users.
Freeware versus Public Domain
Works that are in the public domain may be copied, shared and republished freely, just as with freeware. However, freeware differs from intellectual property in the public domain, for which there is no rightful copyright owner. There might never have been a rightful copyright owner for some works in the public domain. In other cases, the copyright has expired; for instance, the works of Mark Twain are considered to be in the public domain because the copyright for his works has expired. Mark Twain's works remain the works of Mark Twain, which is the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and are not the work of any other person. But because they are in the public domain, a person does not need to pay a fee for permission to reprint a portion of the work, or to republish the work. It is not permitted for anyone to make a copyright claim over an unaltered work in the public domain.
Freeware creators may register their property with the U.S. Copyright Office, either online or by mailing in paper forms. Most computer programs are considered "Literary Works," and would be registered using Form TX. However, if your program is very visually oriented, you have the option of registering your program as a "Visual Arts Work" using Form VA. Registering your program gives you extra protection against infringement, by establishing you as the creator of the freeware program with a registration date on the record.