Free Software & Money

There is an old, yet spreading misconception about Free and Open Source Software, whose effects are being felt almost everywhere. It is the notion that because Free Software is Free as in speech, it is somehow free as in beer. I have already written about this but I feel my point must be made a bit more clear.

I have been involved in Free and Open Source Software projects, circles and companies for over 14 years now and if you ask me what I really think is the clearest and most present danger to Free Software, you might be surprised by my answer. It is not this or that software vendor threatening Free Software projecs that worries me; it is not this or that pernicious regulation here and there putting Free Software at disadvantage that upsets me; the rate of adoption of any particular distribution, while a topic of personal interest, pales in front of what I think is our main problem. Free Software has been consciously or unconsciously designed to fight and adapt to all these hardships, and will ultimately be one of the key factors changing the way we live and think; there are very good chances of that. But we must deal with the unhealthy relation between Free Software and money.

In fact, it is not really that money and Free Software are strange bedfellows. Not only is there nothing prohibiiting anyone to generate revenues with Free Software, it is even encouraged. We have adopted a (sane) practice for years, which is to provide binaries and source code of entire Free Software stacks for free. Reading the GPL you may notice that this is not at all something to be expected; if anything, you may sell your binaries tomorrow, and only give away your source code. The unhealthy part comes when the expectation that not only all this should be free, but that your time, expertise and your entire work should always remain free.

This expectation is not only shared by a few individuals. In fact, an entire industry expects the OpenSSL (and now LibreSSL) developers to rely on fresh water and perhaps hugs to pay for their food and homes. I do not exactly know how we reached that point, but it is not recent. It may be that while some people did very well understand the whereabouts of Free and Open Source Software licenses and did ensure how to capture all the revenue without compensating the original authors, others by contrast did understand Free Software as the promise of a zero buck heaven to come. Unfortunately, this is all a sad misunderstanding, and a completely wrong way to look at FOSS.

Let’s review a few major aspects of this misconception.

1. You do provide the software for free and so does your support come for free

Yes – as long as there is indeed a Free Software project with volunteers willing to help. Note the sentence carefully: “volunteers willing to help”. This denotes two very important notions. The first one is that a project mostly relies on volunteers, aka people unpaid for what they do and the second one is “willing to help”, meaning, these volunteers could choose either not to help you or to do something completely different within the project. No one is here to serve a customer. A customer pays someone in exchange of a good or service. At what point did you pay anything?

2. If you want your software to be credible, you need to be responsible and fix bugs as soon as they arise

This is what many FOSS projects do. But sometimes the bugs that are being fixed are not the ones you just filed. And if you think your bug is more important than anyone else, assuming no one has already filed it, then you can either be patient, or pay one or more developer to fix it. If you want a credible software project, you must expect funding for developers. And that funding rarely comes from invisible money printing machines.

3. Wait… this is blackmail!

Do you have a job? Are you paid for it? The same thing goes for pretty much everyone. Now, if you only want to deal with volunteers, their help, support and goodwill will be voluntary as well. Think that what you may call blackmail is seen as normal business in any other aspect of life.

4. I thought your project was paying its developers?

It does depend on the project. But you must always assume that money is never a given for Free Software projects. There are really three non-mutually exclusive scenarios: the project entirely relaies on public donations; the project is entirely funded by a corporate entity; last but not least, the project has some sort of war chest where it is in a position of investing more resources than other projects (although it still must secure the chest on a regular basis). The third case is rare, and really only applies to Mozilla and Ubuntu (and even Ubuntu does rely on the business of Canonical). For the two remaining cases it is becoming clear that money is a factor and ultimately  conditions the project’s ability to fix bugs or implement patches that do not come from a paying party.

5. Surely developers must feel responsible and do the right thing.

They sure do feel responsible in case of a problem, at least most of them do. As for “doing the right thing” each of them are individuals with their own motivation to contribute to a FOSS project. Do not treat them like employees, and worse don’t think they are at your service.

6. I already pay for service with my local integrator/service provider . Why should I pay a second time?

You are right. You should not have to pay twice. But you should ensure that your supplier can deliver the service he’s selling to you, and that you carefully understand what the service is really about. Systems integrators, consultants, etc. should be part of the FOSS project they are distributing, and not just grabbing the software for free and selling the deployment to their customers, with no real support behind. Unless of course they know how to fix and patch the software themselves. This is why the Document Foundation has been working on a professional certication scheme for months now and it is hoped it will bring clarity to the market while strengthening the ecosystem of true experts.

Also, if your supplier does not contribute its patches back to the upstream project, you will ultimately have to pay for the costs of maintaining your own version of the software, thus generating even more costs for you.

As a conclusion, I would really like this post not to be understood as a rant of someone who discovered that Free Software does not bring money easily. I am not affected by that problem, fortunately. But I think a change in attitudes and mentalities is not just welcome but important, and necessary if we want Free Software to work and strive.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: