“To whom much has been given, much is expected in return” – Free Software economics

To quote the gospel of Luke (12:48) before discussing Free Software is rare, yet not unseen, and this blog will not shy away from creating new rarities every month. Let’s start right away. What do projects such as OpenSSL, LibreSSL & LibreOffice have in common? They are Free Software projects of course; why do I ask the question? Probably because it deserves a better answer… Let’s try to dig deeper.

It is  fashionable these days to show surprise, and then a sorry look, when discussing Free and Open Source Software. Yes, some projects are everywhere, in your browser, embedded into appliances and in places you don’t even imagine they could be. Is it written anywhere? Do appliances, ATMs, cars, airplanes, some proprietary software solutions, phones, televisions, ovens come with a full list of components? They usually don’t. But  if they would, people would realize how prevalent Free and Open Source Software is. The other thing they would be surprised with would also be that most of the time, nobody pays projects or developers for this. I know, you’ve been taught that Free Software costs zero, and that’s good news because it’s better than warez, and on top of this you get to tell their idiotic developers that their software stink -heck, you’re even entitled to do that!

The problem with that, however, is that it is not sustainable. I don’t mean to say that the Free Software model is not sustainable, only that, just like any other working system, it does not  work like a perpetual movement: people’s motivation is important, and sometimes even developers need a roof, some food, a shower, perhaps a car…Some of them might be entrepreneurs. Discovering the sorry state of OpenSSL does not equate to demonstrate that Free and Open Source Software does not work as intended, it only means that there are a whole lot of people benefiting from it -the users- and a few people probably abusing it, while the core  contributors do not get anything in the end. And while no  one suggests there is an obligation to pay core contributors in one way or another, certainly no one actually paid attention to the OpenSSL developers.

Let’s come back to LibreOffice. We often get messages, public and private, in the form of: “this or that feature does not work. How can it not work? You should be ashamed to offer this software. I expect software to work, and if it does,’t, well, I’ll take my business elsewhere!”. Of course we have not received this complaint but we did receive similar emails of what can qualified as digruntled customers. At first they were irritating to me, even though some of them were pointing to actual bugs. Now, they make me smile. Not having my livelihood depend on bug fixing helps too, but it would still make me smile. At the risk of offending a few people, these complaints make me think of people who browse large malls, have no money, will not spend anything of course, but who will call the better business bureau and the shops managers to complain about how the racks are aligned or the weak A/C. Could they be right? Probably yes, why not.
Will it be fixed because they communicated their frustration? Probably yes. Or perhaps no. It will really depends if their complaint is justified and if the mall has enough money to fix these issues.

When it comes to Free Software projects, there’s a profound, deep misunderstanding about who does what and how it’s being done. Using the now overused quote, developers write a code “because they have an itch to scratch”, means that there can be twenty different motivations to contribute to Free Software. No one needs to explain or justify his or her contribution. In the real world, one of the most common motivation is money, be it in the form of a salary, a fee, or a transaction involving the developers to fix whatever bug or develop a new feature. Most of the FOSS projects I know -excluding Firefox- do not pay developers directly for fixing bugs except in very specific circumstances and by definition not on a regular basis. The LibreOffice project is no different. The Document Foundation serves the LibreOffice project by financing its infrastructure, protecting its assets and improving LibreOffice in almost every way except paying for development on a regular basis. What this means, in other terms, is that the Document Foundation does not provide support; nor does it provide service to customers. In this sense, it is not a software vendor like Microsoft or Adobe. This is also one of the reasons why there is no “LTS” version of LibreOffice; because the Document Foundation will not provide a more or less mythical “bug-free version” of LibreOffice without ensuring the developers get paid for this. The healthiest way to do this is to grow an ecosystem of developers and service providers who are certified by the Document Foundation and are able to provide professionals with support, development, training and assistance.

To expect software that’s both Free as in beer and as in speech, without bugs and meeting most of your needs is a dream. Free Software delivers software freedom, digital rights; it greatly improves the collaborative development of software and the nurturing of software commons. It does not deliver you free lunch, and it never will. Or rather, if there is free lunch, it will be somebody’s lunch you share with him or her.

How can you help? There are many ways to contribute: joining the community by actively participating to its workflows, its teams and offering time, manpower, expertise; or with money, if you’re a professional user or donating to the project. You can do all this with LibreOffice (donate here; see how you can join us there). Ultimately, Free Software projects do not sell products, they grow communities. Stop being a consumer, become a contributor!

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