Freeing FreeHand. The story of grief, revenge, and refusal

When a software vendor abandons one of its assets, many users move on. But what do others do? In 2011 a group of passionate FreeHand users filed a lawsuite against Adobe and demanded the release of FreeHand’s source code. The controversy is over now.

When dinosaurs ruled the world…

The story of Adobe’s strange affection for FreeHand goes way back, when Altsys was still around. In 1988, Altsys created Virtuoso, a vector graphics editor which they licensed to Aldus, who released it under the name of FreeHand.

Adobe attempted to gain control over FreeHand in 1994 while acquiring Aldus. Upon hearing about the merger plans, Altsys sued Aldus over “a prima facie violation of a non-compete clause within the FreeHand licensing agreement”. The Federal Trade Commission then put a 10 years long moratorium on the acquisition, and all the rights went back to Altsys. But not for long.

Later same year Altsys was acquired by Macromedia. The new owner continued the development of FreeHand and even lowered the price by $100.

FreeHand screenshot by Angelo La Barbera, CC BY SA

FreeHand screenshot by Angelo La Barbera, CC BY SA

However Macromedia was absorbed by Adobe exactly 10 years later, with the merger announced in April 2005 and finalized in December 2005. And this is how Adobe finally gained all FreeHand assets.

By the time Illustrator was already taking the market’s leading position. Unlike Autodesk whose board of directors have so much fun acquiring competing 3D modeling and animation packages, Adobe clearly had no incentive to maintain both rival products.

Even though the company started with an announcement that it would maintain FreeHand and develop it based on customers’ needs, a year later they ceased maintenance.

FreeHand v11 runs on Windows 8 Preview Release

FreeHand v11 runs on Windows 8 Preview Release, but not on recent OSX versions

It probably wasn’t a huge surprise to informed users given that the company killed off one of its own products, PageMill, shortly before announcing the acquirement of Macromedia (along with Dreamweaver). But it did cause an outrage nevertheless.

When things turn pear-shaped for a group of free software users, typically you get a lot of hysteria on forum boards. That is, much like with GNOME 3 and GIMP recently.

But in the world of commercial software crazier things happen.

The dark times

In 2009 a group of passionate FreeHand users led by Thomas Hürlimann, Jabez Palmer, and Mark Gelotte, formed the Free FreeHand Organization (FFO). The organization attempted to talk to Adobe about the future of FreeHand. At the same time they did their best to attract media attention. In some cases this turned badly for the organization: in February 2011 the Freefreehand account at Wikipedia, created by Thomas Hürlimann, was indefinitely banned, because Thomas used it to promote the organization.

Not having heard much from Adobe, in May 2011 the FFO filed a civil antitrust complaint against Adobe Systems, Inc. The allegations boil down to these two:

  1. Adobe willingly monopolized the market of vector graphics editors on Mac and significantly reduced the competition on Windows.
  2. Adobe ceased maintenance and development of FreeHand while channeling the customers to Illustrator and charging supracompetitive prices for it.

The case was judged by none other than Lucy H. Koh who most recently got Samsung to owe Apple $1.05 billion dollars, and ultimately made rounded rectangles the property of the said fruit company.

Unlike many boring lawsuits regarding patents and suchlike, the documents of the court proceedings in this case proved to be quite an enjoyable reading.

Saying that the Free FreeHand Organization spoke eloquently would be like saying that Victoria Falls is a bunch of water pouring down from a rock. To give you an idea, here’s one of the plaintiffs allegations:

Before the acquisition, FreeHand was an actively developed and supported piece of software and a living, breathing product. After the acquisition, Adobe has effectively crippled and killed FreeHand while scavenging its bones for features to incorporate into Illustrator.

There were other interesting claims made with regards to FreeHand, e.g.:

There are currently no close substitutes for professional graphic illustration software, and no other product significantly constrains the price of this software.

This nicely matches some points made by other users in Adobe forums and elsewhere, such as:

Freehand is my medium as an artist, I will work around the restricting platforms until I retire which will be never in my lifetime.

For more details we encourage you to read documents from the hearings. The most useful one seems to be “Order by Hon. Lucy H. Koh granting in part and denying in part 20 Motion to Dismiss”, filed on February 10th, 2012. It contains both the full list of plaintiffs’ allegations and court decisions on each of the claims.

In May 2012 both parties entered the final mediation. While the exact results cannot be publicly stated yet, it is known that members of the Free FreeHand Organization (over 6500 people now) can request a discount for unspecified Adobe products.

Adobe also made it clear that they intend to work with the community to find out if it’s possible to adjust Adobe Illustrator to meet some users requests.

As the result, FreeFreeHand and Adobe resolved the litigation, and the case was dismissed. No source code of Adobe FreeHand was released.

Following that decision, the Free Freehand website was renamed to FreeHand Forum, and the focus turned to one of the alternative solutions.

Present days

In late 2011, before the battle was lost, leaders of Free FreeHand Organization started considering other possibilities and talking to developers of other vector graphics editors to see, how much could be done to make existing tools more FreeHand-like.

Apparently, when the parties entered the last mediation, it was clear that working with an existing software vendor was going to be the only option. Leaders of FFO analyzed available options (including Inkscape and sK1) and went ahead with Quasado, a Nürnberg-based company that was already working on a FH look-alike vector graphics editor called Expressive. The move was announced on July.

Few weeks later Quasado renamed Expressive to Stagestack to avoid possible clashes with Microsoft Expression, even though Quasado allegedly owns a trademark for “Expressive” since before Microsoft acquired Creature House Expression.

The FreeHand community didn’t like the new name, so they were surveyed for other options. Despite of OpenHand clearly winning, another rename wasn’t announced.

The development of Stagestack is now (at least partially) funded by the community via pledges, much like on Kickstarter. The company, however, intends to sell licenses and make the software run on both Windows, Linux and Mac.

Stagestack is still in its infancy, with very little GUI and only some core features working. Both Windows and Mac versions have been publicly demonstrated.

Meanwhile Quasado is currently thinking about doing a conference in Europe for the community later this year.

The net outcome, however, is that the community stepped out of dealing with one proprietary product to start dealing with another.

What does it all mean to free software users?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of activity from former FreeHand users in Inkscape channels. There are very few relevant requests in the bug tracker, and the Freehand-like shortcuts scheme (anno 2006) doesn’t seem to be actively used, if you take in account its mentioning on the Web. So the whole FreeHand story isn’t affecting the course of development much.

Speaking of Stagestack, it’s difficult to predict how in fullness of time the availability of a commercial vector graphics editor is going to affect existing free software projects, especially the ones that primarily target Linux. After all, not many actively developed applications support CMYK and spot colors natively which is an acknowledged deal breaker.

As of today, Inkscape’s board is strongly against paid development, while Stagestack’s development is financially backed. And while PrintDesign’s (formerly sK1) developer has nothing against paid development, the project is a one-man band, which makes it a less sustainable enterprise.

Another major point here is the support for FreeHand files. Quasado pushed this task to the final milestone, and they aren’t done with Milestone #1 yet. Maybe this is where free software could gain part of the former FreeHand community? LGW asked Valek Filippov of the fellow re-lab team about that.

The initial parser of FH files was written by Valek in 2007. It was capable of reading v10 and v11 files, with some work still to do on v9 files. Some basics were also figured out about v5-v8.

The main issue with parsing FH files is the way these files are designed. “Each FreeHand file has two parts,” — says Valek — “a large block of binary data, and a list of text IDs for entries in that blob. Those IDs do not provide any information about the formats of the entries in the blob. The entries may vary and even be equal to zero. It typically depends on multiple conditions.“

So, if the parser doesn’t understand the type of an entry, it doesn’t know how much data to read or to skip, and eventually starts reading subsequent entries from incorrect positions.

This makes reading FH files a living hell. The existing basic converter of FH files to SVG barely works, which is why it was never publicly released in the first place.

According to Valek, there are several ways to solve this:

  • a dedicated Google Summer of Code project;
  • some sort of fundraising;
  • a commissioned work taken up by LibreOffice community who actively participated in the development of libvisio and libmspub, and wrote nearly all of libcdr.

Of course, there’s also a chance that Free FreeHand could get Adobe to publicly release FH file formats specifications. We’d be interested to hear from Free FreeHand Organization team about that. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet responded the request.

While FreeHand itself rests in peace, FreeHand files can still be liberated. Whether this is going to happen, with or without Quasado, remains to be seen.