Freeing FreeHand: the story of grief, revenge and refusal

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

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, 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.

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17 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Wow, I started out in FreeHand way back in 1997 (slight sarcasm) and it was an excellent tool that had many advantages over Illustrator at the time. I understand why some people are so attached to it. However, it seems to me like it was losing popularity even then and it was obviously going to be redundant with Illustrator after Adobe acquired Macromedia in 2005.

    I think if Inkscape was where it is now back in 2005 it would have been a good option for FreeHand-lovers. However, at almost 8 years later, anybody that is still hoping to continue to use FreeHand doesn’t seem to be very practical.

    I guess if I were a soon-to-be-former FreeHand user I’d be more interested in the features of the alternative applications than whether or not I would be able to import my old work.

    After all, the interface and features is what made people love Freehand in the first place. A few off the top of my head:

    - multiple pages of different dimensions in one document
    - master pages
    - great cloning and transformation tools

    Obviously, Inkscape already has great cloning and transformation tools. I’m not sure if multiple pages really made much sense, but people loved that as I recall.

  2. Alexandre Prokoudine 28 August 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Jason, in February this year I aspecifically asked Tav (Inkscape’s developer who’s in SVG WG) about pages in SVG 2.0, and he replied:

    The SVG working group has discussed several times the need for paging in SVG (for presentations, for example). In the SVG working group charter, “Pagination and Slides” is listed, but it has been given a low priority.[1] This means that it is unlikely to be included in SVG 2.0 unless someone outside the group were to make a serious proposal (syntax, test cases, etc.).


    I’m afraid, that’s going to stay that way next several years given the usual development pace of standards.

  3. Fridrich Strba 28 August 2012 at 4:19 pm

    That is why one should also target to push as much features from SVG to ODG and use that one, since it has a proper support of pages for instance.

  4. Great article! For some reason I had never heard of this adventure in the world of graphics.

  5. Aleve Sicofante 29 August 2012 at 1:43 am

    Very interesting article.

    Why haven’t the Free FreeHand people turned to Inkscape asking for their particular needs? Sounds like the most appropriate place to go instead of battling a huge corporation like Adobe.

    I’ve only used Inkscape occasionally and found it very easy to grasp, even its most powerful features. I understand practical spot color features need a Pantone license (just because everyone uses Pantone), but CMYK support is there.

  6. Alexandre Prokoudine 29 August 2012 at 8:53 am

    Aleve, here is the verdict form their evaluation:

    I then studied the other vector applications out there like Inkscape and Xara and Corel. None felt close enough to Freehand to easily be “transformed” to something most of us would except.

    Inkscape is open source and could possibly be built upon but my feeling was that the development of the “ordinary” Inkscape was slow and not very appealing to hook into.

  7. I think Stagestack is a dead way. It will be another closed package that may be bought and canceled.

    Inkscape is freehand’s fans only hope. :)

  8. Aleve Sicofante 29 August 2012 at 6:44 pm


    I see. Sounds like they want their beloved Freehand back (which won’t happen) and only that.

    I agree with Vladimir. Opting for a closed source project will put the them at the risk of repeating the same history. It’s amazing they don’t realize that. Going open source would have given them the opportunity to even clone FH feature by feature and have it open forever (I don’t think anyone would sue them for patents or other proprietary stuff on such an antique).

    For the few FH files I’ve got around, I just load them in an old copy of the program runing on a virtual machine, export them to something Inkscape will swallow and I’m done with it. I honestly can’t see what’s so “magical” about Freehand. I know many people can’t stand change but after so many years???

  9. @Aleve

    FH (up to v.10) was very fast, very stable and so “magical” productive. It had no on-screen aliasing, but had “search and replace paths”. And you could use only *one* pointer to work with objects and nodes and so and so…

  10. Aleve Sicofante 29 August 2012 at 11:55 pm

    I’m sure FH was a very good piece of software. But in my experience, you can get used and be productive on almost anything as long as it covers the basics and then some.

    My experience is in 3D animation, where I expect any pro to be able to be productive the same in Blender, Softimage, Maya or 3DS Max. Once you master an application, you’ll be fast on it. But then again, maybe desktop publishing is lacking good quality applications and I can’t extrapolate. I don’t know.

  11. Freehand has all about ease of use. As I designer I was able to create much faster and easily with Freehand than I’am with Illustrator. Illustrator has a lot of nice features, but in freehand it was about being creative, not a greek. It took me a long time to leave Freehand, and I still prefer it to the slow, over complicated Illustrator that Adobe forced on everyone.

  12. It’s all about productivity and efficiency—- there are a number of tasks which we do on a recurring basis, which are estimated and billed out based on how quickly they can be done using FreeHand—- when our last machine running 10.6 dies we’ll need to explain to our customers that these things which we’ve been doing for years are going to increase in price dramatically ‘cause we’ll have to start doing them in some other program (or run FreeHand in Windows).

    Things which I miss when using other drawing programs:

    - hold down command key to move a just placed node (other programs will mis-use shift (constrain to even angles) and option/alt (free the previous off-curve point) irritating me to no end)
    - auto-resizing text boxes w/ insets and fills and strokes for the box (for bonus points, allow one to use object styles)
    - control-click to select the next object down in a stack

    Lots more—- the big thing is I don’t need to consciously think over how to accomplish something when using FreeHand—- I simply draw / create.

    If Adobe would simply allow InDesign to open FreeHand files and modify its pen and selection tools to function as FreeHand’s do, and provide full graphics-find-replace functionality, I’d be fine w/ using InDesign in lieu of FreeHand—- I’d probably even buy a license to use at home.

  13. Aleve Sicofante 12 March 2013 at 10:38 pm


    You really mean you change your prices every time you are forced to change your workflow because of a [closed] software development decision?

    It doesn’t matter what FH does so nicely for you. If you can’t adapt to newer programs and be equally efficient, I can’t see a bright future for your firm…

    Again, why you’re not investing in open source instead of expecting Adobe to implement shortcuts to your old habits for you is a mystery to me (the reasons have been explained above).

  14. I was once a Freehand user. Worked on a Mac creating vector art for national consumer flexo packaging company. We used Freehand for its ease of use. Especially when working with national agencies who built their art in Illustrator. I spent eight years working with Illustrator and FreeHand on a daily basis. And was able to compare them side-by-side. We built art on a common core, using layers for multiple customer SKU’s. Art was typically spot color, tints, type, and 4/C process for photographic imagery. We frequently received artwork in Illustrator from clients, but always had to go back and rebuild the art in Freehand. Our files were then sent over to a Unix Postscript rip, and flexo plates created from the rip. In today’s world, these techniques are dinosaurs. So much has changed since I left the industry in 1998. It was easier to build artwork in Freehand. And to set type in it as well. We never used Freehand as an illustration tool. Just simply to build art and type quickly. Illustrator never seemed to handle type as easily. At least in our opinion. Illustrator is a powerful program. If Adobe would take the best of Freehand’s type tools, and put them in Illustrator, nothing would come close to it. I’ve always used Adobe products and enjoy their powerful abilities, clean interface, and creative capabilities. It appears some egos were bruised somewhere in Adobe. This surprises me considering Adobe was once a startup itself. As is often the case, startups grow to become mature corporations. But in doing so, they often fail to maintain the entrepreneurial insight and spirit. Markets mature, technology changes, and companies settle into a more cautious approach. Personally, I believe Adobe lost a valuable market niche by killing Freehand off. But I guess folks have grown accustomed to Illustrator by now, and simply don’t realize the powerful type function that were once part of Freehand. There’s no point in living in the past though. Yet I must confess, I still use Freehand myself. Just for typesetting. An old copy of Version 10 from 1998!! Now I’m really showing my age! I have yet to find an alternative program that handles type so well. I use other software, but return to Freehand every time I have to set type. Artists must change and adapt to new discoveries in technology. I’m all for growing and moving ahead. But sometimes software designers throw out a few good things in the process. What’s the harm in including a few of the Freehand tools in Illustrator? But it may be too late now. Once minds harden it’s difficult to thaw them out.

  15. RIP, not for me, i’m a real bad ass freehand fan since 1989 when i used the first time aldus freehand version, since that time i have used only this program for my graphical design needs like designing Products, DTP, creating Electrical Plans, or whatever is possible in Freehand.
    I keeping a older mac mini side by side to my newer Computers and do all my designwork still under OSX 10.6. I refuse to use any Software from this Adobe Mafia and there is no way that i will give up on my beloved Freehand 11. F…U Adobe, not with me !!!!

  16. I’d just like to be able to convert my old FreeHand work (which is now inaccessible unless I resurrect an old OS 9 Mac) to a format I can open in a modern graphics program (I love Serif’s Affinity Designer).