Mon, Feb 27, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Making money off free software

By Danny Bradbury  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Austelle describes herself as "a frequent Internet user" who checks her e-mail daily, participates in forums, and has multiple online accounts. But that did not stop her falling for a new loophole by which sites provide software that's available free elsewhere -- and charge for "support" that may be limited or even nonexistent.

Austelle paid a Web site US$33.90 for the Limewire peer-to-peer (P2P) client -- which is available free from sites such as limewire.com. She found the fee-charging site after searching for file downloads in a search engine.

"As soon as I joined, like within 10 minutes, I realized that I had been had, and that Limewire is a free download and is so easy to use that hardly anyone ever needs any assistance," she said.

Austelle was the victim of a new breed of Web sites making money off free software. While companies such as Red Hat have for years charged money to distribute and support free software (particularly Linux), they clearly add value through support and CD distribution.

But some of these new sites charge "membership fees" either to provide a downloadable version of the software copied from a legitimate Web site, or to redirect browsers to the site they should have gone to in the first place. Clearly, they capitalize on the ignorance of net newbies.

Most of these Web sites work similarly. Searching for free software titles such as "Skype" in search engines produces sponsored links that draw the novice user's eye away from the main search results.

The Web sites behind the links charge users a membership fee to download the software. Internet forums and blogs are littered with postings from angry users who did not realize they could get the software free elsewhere, or who claim that the support was cursory at best.

Some sites make it clear that the software is available free elsewhere, and that users are paying for technical support. Not so with www.freedownloadhq.com.

"I tried to find out who to contact," recalls fashion designer Shabazz Torres, who found the site through a Google search. "I replied to an e-mail they sent confirming my payment, but there was no one I could contact to get a refund."

PROMISE OF SUPPORT

FreeDownloadHq.com is registered to XTreme Software Ltd, a company with an English address, but the resident at that address is a formation agent who registers companies on behalf of accountancy firms. He told us that XTreme Software was registered by David Shullick, of Xtreme Innovations in Florida.

Shullick wouldn't speak to us but in a written response, the company said: "We do charge ... because we provide tutorials as well as full technical support on all the programs we offer access to."

However, investigators for security software firm SiteAdvisor were unable to find any support.

Other players appear more legitimate at first glance. Sites such as Download-It-Free.com explain in their FAQ that the software is available free elsewhere. Nevertheless, a callcenter operative gave a slightly different story when we asked why we shouldn't download software such as BitTorrent's P2P client from BitTorrent for free.

"Most of those sites, they won't charge you a one-time fee, but they'll charge you every time you want to download a file. We offer a one-time fee and then you get BitTorrent and the other programs free," the operative said.

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