Open source is sold and FOSS is not

Summary:If someone comes to you wearing a suit, a smile, and their hand out, it matters little what license their wares may carry. They're still a salesman. They're open source.

I have spent many pleasant hours with Matt Asay's latest, "The wrong marketing for open source."

I think I finally figured it out. Matt says that FOSS software can't be sold while open source can be.

This is a feature, not a bug. It's why the GNU smiles.

Much of my confusion involves the GPL and FOSS. The GPL was created as a FOSS license but it remains the most popular open source license out there.

I explained the reason in my 2006 piece The Open Source Incline. Giving outside contributors the same rights you enjoy is the best way to encourage their participation. For an open source company the GPL helps drive development and the construction of a community, which it needs to thrive.

So the GPL, while created for FOSS, is also used by open source. And there remains a key difference between FOSS software and open source, which Matt nails. Open source is sold and FOSS is not.

What marks a FOSS project is not its license but the motivation behind it. A FOSS project is not driven by dreams of financial gain. It's driven by dreams of service, of shared effort helping all boats rise. The Mozilla Foundation is not about the Benjamins even though Firefox uses a Mozilla license rather than the GPL. Money keeps things moving but no one is getting rich.

Open source combines the shared effort of FOSS and marries it to the profit motive. Open source developers share code in order to sell support, or services, or products built using the code. The key word in the previous sentence is sell.

Open source is sold, FOSS is downloaded. Open source companies are looking for a profit, FOSS projects are looking to get by, to grow, to serve and to share.

Matt makes his living as an open source executive with Alfresco. Alfresco uses the GPL, but it's an open source company, not a FOSS project. Alfresco wants to make money. Making money is good.

But how much money? To an open source company, the answer is as much as possible. To a FOSS project the answer is enough to get by.

There is nothing wrong with either model. Both can, in fact, use the same licenses, or different licenses. But if someone comes to you wearing a suit, a smile, and their hand out, it matters little what license their wares may carry. They're still a salesman.

They're open source.

Topics: Open Source

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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