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Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism - page 4

Building Friction?

  • May 27, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

Another recent controversy making the rounds is Matt Asay's comments last week about the problems of so-called free riders--people who use free software without contributing cash, code, or time to projects.

Asay acknowledges that maybe "there's nothing such projects should do about free-riders," and adds that at least free riders aren't using proprietary competitors' products and that they provide emotional reassurance to others by swelling the user base.

But, despite these efforts to consider both sides of the issue, he can't get away from the old-school idea that "someone must pay for software in order to have it written," and that free-riders are a problem "for those in the commercial open source world (and that's most everyone now)." He does not quite offer solutions, although, from his opening examples of airlines and hotels, he seems to favor some sort of loyalty program to encourage the sort of customers he wants.

Such an argument is more than mildly ironic, considering that some community members still regard open source businesses as free-riders because they profit from the volunteer efforts of others.

Nor do Asay's assumptions stand up under scrutiny. Companies may be an important part of the free software ecosystem these days, but they hardly fill every available niche. Unpaid volunteers still swell the ranks of many free software projects, and only a handful of projects are dominated by a single company, so the ideas that code must be paid for and that all free software development is commercial seem myopic at best.

In fact, I would question the whole idea of free-riders. Traditionally, free software developers do not work to benefit others. Instead, they work to provide the tools they want. Admittedly, those paid to work on free software may not always be doing work they want, but the same remains true on a corporate scale--by adding features to free software, a company gets its return in a product that is more attractive to customers. It also gets good will advertising by proving itself a good member of the community.

More importantly, the point of free licenses is to remove the restrictions on users as far as possible. If you start trying to differentiate between users on the basis of how much they pay back to you, then you are undermining the whole idea of free software in the first place. It is only from a traditional business perspective that such differentiation seems desirable, or even possible. If you truly understand free software, then you have to realize that an inability to control your code is part of the price of doing business.

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