Shared Interests (Part 1)
Shareware & Public Domain software
Mountains of useful programs can be yours for nothing! Well, it's a public service, innit? declares Ian Waugh.
You've seen the ads in the computer press - long lists of software titles covering everything from games to utilities. Public Domain and Shareware programs have been around for many years now, but are they of interest to anyone other than computer nerds? Is there anything to interest the musician or those involved in multimedia? Ian Waugh goes public...
It's not often that you get something for nothing. In fact nowhere is the saying, "there's no such thing as a free lunch" more true than in the music business. But then if you wanted money for nothing you should have become a solicitor or an estate agent.
But, contrary to what you might think, there is a band of happy brothers who shun normal business convention, who bypass the normal channels of retail distribution and who do have faith in their fellow man. These are the people who write Public Domain and Shareware programs and anyone interested in music and/or multimedia has much to thank them for.
Although many use the terms interchangeably, PD and Shareware are quite different. Public Domain refers to software which the programmer has 'given to the public'. It may be freely copied and distributed without paying any fee. Essentially, the programmer has given up copyright (used in the same sense as copyright on a piece of music). This, however, also deprives the author of any rights to the software. Someone else could modify it and generally play fast and loose with it.
To prevent this, the term Freeware was coined. This allows the software to be freely used and copied but the author retains rights over it. Such software is usually accompanied by specific instructions to the effect that the software must not be altered and if it is distributed all accompanying documents must be included.
Shareware is a totally different concept. It works on the basis of try-before-you-buy. It may be freely copied and distributed - unaltered and complete with all documentation - and if after trying it, you like it and decide to use it, you send the author a contribution. This is typically anything from $5-50. Yes, most of it is American.
The registration fee often entitles you to additional benefits, perhaps a printed manual, extra program features, the source code (if you're into programming) or the author may send you the next update. However, the promise of such extras is not a condition of registration - quite simply, you should pay the fee if you continue using the program. To save trees - or at least a few column inches - we'll refer to all these types of software as Shareware.
Without any word of exaggeration, there are hundreds of thousands of Shareware programs out there. Some are bugged, some are old and won't work with the latest version of your computer hardware or software, but many thousands of them perform useful, even vital functions, and some of the more sophisticated programs rival commercial software. Predictably, the PC has by far the greatest number of Shareware programs, but the recent influx of low-cost Macs has brought with it an influx of Shareware. Atari STs are well catered for, and so too are Amigas.
What sort of programs are there? You name it, there's probably a Shareware program to do the job. They range from utilities to improve the way you use your computer to fully-fledged applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases and graphics programs. There is a vast amount of clip art, fonts, educational software and, of course, games. There is also an enormous range of software for the musician and anyone interested in multimedia. This includes Shareware sequencers - for all computer formats - synth editors and librarians, and computer composition programs. Additionally, there are thousands of graphic images for use in multimedia applications, graphic file viewers, editors and converters and also QuickTime movies to 'borrow' from on the Mac.
In short, Shareware offers a massive range of inexpensive tools and utilities to increase your productivity and to use in your music or multimedia projects.
Because Shareware is distributed as computer files - whether you download them from a bulletin board or get them on a disk from a Shareware library - there is no printed documentation. However, there will almost always be at least one text file explaining what the program is and how to use it. Ignore this at your peril. Some software has a full manual on disk, complete with illustrations, which you can load into a wordprocessor and print out (although sometimes you need the right wordprocessor!). When all else fails - RTFM (Read The F***ing Manual).
We've said that Shareware is free but, of course, you can't ring up a Shareware library and ask them to send you their latest disk collection for nowt. Well, you can but don't be surprised if they use two words to say 'no'. Shareware libraries exist to distribute the software and what you pay for is the disk it comes on and the duplication costs.
It's important to understand that you are not paying for the software - you do that when you register - and you have no recourse to the library if you have problems with the software. All reputable libraries will replace faulty disks, of course, and some will try to help if you have problems, but the library's responsibility ends with supplying you the disk.
And the princely sum for this service? Usually around £2.50-3.50 per disk - although most libraries offer a discount if you buy several disks which can bring the price down to about £2.00. Some companies have advertised disks as low as 99p including VAT and carriage, but do your own sums and work out how much they make out of that! I haven't seen them advertise for a while...
Some Mac libraries charge as much as £5 per disk, gainfully hanging onto the concept that Macs are expensive and Mac users have money to burn. They're about a year out of touch. Some of the more enterprising companies such as Stormont charge on a 'filled disk' basis - you simply order the programs you want to fill a disk. Good, eh?
If you have a modem, a bulletin board system (BBS) is a good source of software. The main advantage is that you can download the software instantly from a massive catalogue of titles. Many BBSs charge you a fee of between £5 to £30 to become a registered user. If you're not registered you may be able to look around, but not download software (although some BBS give unregistered users a limited amount of time or else limit the amount of software they can download).
A good BBS often gets software before a library and most have a New Files facility which shows all the new files since you last logged on. A library may only mail out an update every month, often less frequently. Both sources usually obtain new material from America so the cost of the disks or subscription to the BBS helps pay the telephone charges!
OK, I know what you're thinking, student of human nature that I am - does anyone actually register their software? You won't be surprised to learn, human nature being what it is, that the vast majority of Shareware users don't register. The 'something for nothing' ethos runs deep within us.
Of course, as you're usually dealing with individual authors, there is the nagging doubt that if you send off a fee in return for whatever extra goodies have been promised, they may not arrive. But look at the other side of the coin: the authors are giving you full use of their software in return for a fee which rarely arrives.
To be fair, there are some honest souls who would like to register but who are put off because the majority of (although by no means all), Shareware originates from overseas - America for Mac and PC software, and Europe for ST, Falcon and Amiga. The effort and expense of organising a bank draft or an IMO just doesn't seem worthwhile. Incidentally, the Shareware concept is accepted much more readily in America where authors report a much higher rate of registration than in the UK.
Some of the more prolific Shareware authors accept credit cards and some have banded together to make such an arrangement more practical. Some Shareware libraries will handle overseas registrations for you but others don't want to get involved. It is, they say, a matter between the author and the user.
The ASP (Association of Shareware Professionals) aims to monitor the standard of Shareware among programming members and has an ombudsman who will help solve disputes with ASP authors. Some libraries are ASP libraries and these are keen to help with registrations. However, other libraries say the ASP imposes too many restrictions on them and claim it's a bit of a loose association anyway.
Licenseware seems to be one of the best methods of ensuring fiscal solvency for software authors and the addition of a quid on a disk isn't too a high price to pay. But the bottom line, quite simply, is that if you use the stuff, you should pay for it, even though we have no Thought Police. Yet.
MT will be scouring the libraries and the boards in search of Shareware goodies, and reporting on our findings. We will, of course, major on music and multimedia software, but also included will be examples of mega utils out there which as computer users we can all benefit from. If any Shareware library or BBS would like to send us their lists we'll be happy to give them a mention, particularly those who specialise in MT-oriented titles.
We'll begin next month with some essential information you need to know as you embark on the Shareware adventure - viruses and file compressors and the like - and we'll list some of our fave Shareware programs. Be there or pay more...
Feature by Ian Waugh
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!