Giving away free licences to universities, charities and open source projects


How do you feel about giving away free licenses (original price: $2000 ) to universities, charities and open source projects of your software to spread the word?

  • Is it a good idea?
  • Shall we demand for something in return (maybe use them as reference, or a link back?)
  • Shall we put a very low price instead of giving it away for free? (something like $25 maybe ). Just to ensure that they are genuinely interested.
  • Is there any non obvious business impact that we might be missing right now?

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asked Dec 20 '09 at 00:13
The Dictator
2,305 points
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  • What kind of software are you selling? If you consider universities as a potential market, it might not be so wise to give it away. – Olivier Lalonde 14 years ago
  • It's a potential market but I'm fairly sure they won't buy :) It's a enterprise/mid-org level security software . – The Dictator 14 years ago
  • Don't mistake universities for non-profits - they are anything but non-profit. The balsamiq guys mentioned a policy they borrowed from somewhere else - J 14 years ago

8 Answers


We have been doing this with our engineering software (costing >$30K/user) for a long time now but with mixed success. We learned several things in the process:

  1. It's not enough to give the universities software for free. You have to treat them like real customers and work on making the successful. This may include support, training, everything you would do for a customer. If you give them software but they are not successful with it it will have no value to you. This of course requires you to balance how much effort you put into universities vs. commercial accounts.
  2. You don't have to treat all universities the same. If there are universities that have better reputations in your industries you can build relationships with them and give them software for free while having a different program for other universities.
  3. In our case we make it clear to the schools that the software is for educational use only. If they use it for paid-for research projects then a different license is required and we negotiate that separately.
  4. It takes a long time for this effort to develop value and you have to be in it for the long term gain. You should be anyway but if you're looking for a quick return focus on commercial accounts instead.

After 10 years, looking back at how we've handled universities, we find that we're doing a lot better in the countries where we put a lot of effort into our educational program 10 years ago than in those countries where we just started recently. It definitely make a long term difference.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 16:01
1,866 points


In general, it's a good idea to discount products and services to non-profits as a way to build goodwill and a potential user base. Plenty of software companies do this for Universities so that they get students used to the software for future sales.

Don't demand anything. That just makes it seem unauthentic. You should really want to help the non-profit because you feel compelled to.

A price discount is much better than giving it away for free. You could do a trial period and then a discount but my experience with free software to non-profits (which is limited), underscores your point about them being interested.

Olalonde makes a good point about the potential market for your software. You need to consider that before discounting or giving stuff away.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 00:47
Jarie Bolander
11,421 points


Giving away software is a mixed bag, and you have to decide where you should give it and where you should discount it. For example, your local animal shelter is severely understaffed and underfunded, so giving them the software is fine. Princeton, while technically a non-profit, has a truly ridiculous amount of money, so discounts for them. One rule of thumb is that you should never sell at full price to a non-profit because a) they'll find someone else who's willing to undercut you, and b) it makes you look like a dick.

You can't demand anything from them even if you give it away, but you're well within your rights to ask them to publicly thank you. Sort of the way this works is that you give them the software unconditionally and say, "By the way... if you could write something in your newsletter about this..." However, if they don't, you can't hold it against them. Every non-profit gets regular donations from the least likely places, and $2,000 isn't a lot compared to what Microsoft gives them.

Selling at $25 may not be a great idea because, like Jarie said, it kind of underscores your point, and it also cheapens your product. Ideally, you'd like to sell it either at cost or slightly below. If you drop the price by 50%, it says, "Even though they're selling at a discount, it still costs a lot of money to develop". Selling at $25 says, "Some guy wrote this in his garage and he's just looking to make a quick buck." It also puts you in the same price category as open-source software but without community support.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 01:35
Raymond Giorgi
61 points


Read these great stories and data from the Balsamiq blog about donating software.

Bottom line: Donation cost them very little but got them tremendous rewards.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 03:55
16,231 points


Well, Microsoft do it. They are selling low-priced licenses for students, professors, universities. The students of today make the deciders of tomorrow.

I studied in a school which only had computers running Linux and guess what ? I now use Ubuntu on my main computer.

answered Jan 4 '11 at 19:25
Maxime R.
181 points


If you do this at all, make it free rather than a reduced price.

Why? Because when something is free the recipient will generally be kinder about things like demanding tech support, features, and live video demos. When someone has paid, even a small amount, there's a psychological difference where now you "owe" them something.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 03:56
16,231 points
  • Although also there is a risk that they'll ignore the application since it's free they didn't pay any effort to get it (other than a simple e-mail to ask for a free product) – The Dictator 14 years ago
  • To me that's not much of a "risk." What's the downside? Furthermore, severely reduced rate doesn't imply interest. For example, at Smart Bear we did a 1-week promo, get our (normally $500/seat) software for $5 for 5 users. Thousands of purchases, very few actually were using it when we called up. – Jason 14 years ago


Others have mentioned the benefits, but one I did not see was that you can get great tax write-offs doing this. Even if you did it for no other reason it is worth it for that.


The tax write-offs of course are subject to compliance with your jurisdictional regulations. Like Jason points out - most universities will not qualify, but most non-profit/charity organizations do qualify. They must be willing to provide documentation for you if you want to be able to stand up to an audit/other scrutiny. If they are getting value from the product I don't see why they wouldn't provide it.

answered Dec 20 '09 at 13:12
Tim J
8,346 points
  • Right now we are quite new, so no problem with tax yet, as we are not earning that much :) But good point. – The Dictator 14 years ago
  • I'm not sure that's correct. It's certainly not correct for educational institutions. Even with non-profits you can't always write off bartered products like this, and if you can, you need *each one* to issue you a tax statement; you can't just declare it yourself. Consult an accountant of course. – Jason 14 years ago
  • Right - they certainly have to follow the tax laws and see my other answer about educational facilities being NOT non-profit. – Tim J 14 years ago


From the comments it sounds like your software wouldn't be very useful to university students and not to many non-profits either.

If this is the case, I say don't do this. You don't get goodwill if people don't actually use and talk about your software.

Furthermore you'll get feedback that's probably incorrect. That is, they'll have feedback that's right for them, but since they're not your target audience, it's not correct for your market.

answered Dec 21 '09 at 02:16
16,231 points
  • Good point, it's useful to the university but not to students in it :) – The Dictator 14 years ago
  • Typically "education discount" means for professors/students, not to the central office. – Jason 14 years ago

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