Yes, freeware programmers do retain the copyright to the software they create.
It is important to note what type of software license you are dealing with, because Freeware is different from other types of software licenses.
Commercial software is sold for profit, with restricted access to the code, distribution, and other copyright rights.
Freeware is licensed at no cost, and can either be fully functional for an unlimited time or be limited in function and have the fully functional version available on the market. Freeware can be closed-source, meaning you can’t get access to everything about the software including the source code. Examples of this are Adobe reader and Skype.
Contrast that to open source software, where the license actually “frees” up ability to access the code and other rights. Users can study, use, modify, whatever to the source code. Here, since you are giving away the code, you are giving up your copyright rights to everyone, making having a copyright a moot point.
Freeware is not free software. When the Free Software Foundation coined the term in 1985, they meant the term “free” to pertain to the distribution aspects of the software. Because of this distinction, free software is not necessarily free in price. Although it usually is.
Therefore, freeware software developers retain the copyright unless the freeware is released under a license to the contrary like the GNU license, Creative Commons, Art Libre, etc. This follows the general rule that just because a song, image or movie is given away for free, that doesn't mean that the person who made it has given up her copyright or trademark rights.
If you are a freeware programmer and have any other questions about your copyright or want to learn more about the free software movement, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.