Tech Audit

Costly Freebies

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We have long sung the praises of OpenOffice, the free Microsoft Office-compatible productivity suite. It is simpler than Office, compatible with Office, and works better for some purposes than Office. And it is free.

But a free lunch can attract contaminants. Several users are reporting a Web site that looks legitimate but deceptively charges credit cards $50 for CDs that appear to be free (except for $3 shipping and handling). While you can get your money back if you act quickly, it is a hassle, and lawyers don’t have time for hassles.

OpenOffice’s public license states: “You may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, and you may at your option offer warranty protection in exchange for a fee.” Charging for improvements in the software or for media—the DVD or CD containing OpenOffice—does not violate its open-source license.

At various times, you might buy OpenOffice with media on eBay with a buy-it-now price of anywhere from $27 to $9 (including shipping). You could also purchase a download of OpenOffice for $6 on eBay. But this is not the optimal way to acquire OpenOffice. There was a site on the Net that charged $38 to download Firefox, the free Mozilla Foundation Web browser. Watch out. Not only is it ridiculous to pay the $38, but there may be a smaller monthly-fee alternative, which also is ridiculous.

A complete “rebranding” of free stuff is another pure scam. One former online vendor renamed OpenOffice and sold it for $30. It also sold a renamed version of the popular, free Gimp photo editor for $20. VLC, the free video player, was “rebranded” by the same outfit for $30.

Smart Moves

Take responsibility for your technology, even though this is easier said than done. OpenOffice really is good, fully functioning and free. There are ways to avoid those who try to poach on the legitimacy of OpenOffice or other free software, including:

• Downloading it directly from a completely free site (like for OpenOffice). You’ll know you have the most current version and, if you want, you can press your own media after you download.

• Purchasing it in person from a bookstore or computer store so that even if you overpay, you know exactly what you are paying and exactly what you are receiving. Purchase a book on how to use the free package if the book includes a CD or DVD containing the free software itself.

You may purchase StarOffice media from Sun, the original developer of OpenOffice. StarOffice 8 was recently available on with media for $60 (after a $20 rebate). It is available as a download from Sun for $70. StarOffice, the precursor of OpenOffice, is not identical to OpenOffice, but has purchasable support. (On the other hand, one can generally get questions answered about OpenOffice from the user community.) 2.x Resource Kit, a softbound book available for preorder from for $33, appears to include media with software distribution. Better yet, as far as price, is $15.74 for OpenOffice for Dummies, with a distribution CD containing OpenOffice.

But the best price is the free download from The philosophy behind open software, aside from its ability to be used on any platform, is that basic software should be free. The office suite is a commodity. But commodity tools, including the office suite, have been exploited by the unscrupulous to make a quick buck. Protecting yourself is not difficult, but you can’t avoid responsibility. What makes OpenOffice such an easy mark for exploitation is that it really is worth paying for. But there is no need to.

With OpenOffice, be suspicious when lunch comes with a charge.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected].

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