Paying for free software may be the bargain of a lifetime

Open source consortia may be uncommercial, uncontrollable and only borderline sustainable. But they catalyse far more worth than they cost

"A culture of entitlement is starting to damage the open source community," Theo de Raadt, the founder and lead developer of the OpenBSD open source operating system, declared this week.

His gripe is that while his organisation is struggling to make ends meet on losses of around $20,000 a year, proprietary software companies that benefit from his team's work are making money hand over fist. The relationship is all take and no give. That's basically unfair, says de Raadt.

Fairness and capitalism have never been comfortable bedfellows, but de Raadt does have a point. The open BSDs may be less famous than Linux, but they are arguably superior in stability and security. This has made it popular in ISPs and elsewhere — Apple, for example, adopted BSD within OS X. BSD, unlike software released under the GPL, carrys no legal obligations for the adopter to provide anything for the community in return.

That should not prevent enlightened self-interest from taking a lead. Last quarter alone Apple's revenues were $4.3bn. OpenBSD made around $100,000, half from CDs and half from donations. In the time it takes to read this article, we calculate that Apple will have easily made enough to pay-off OpenBSD's annual losses, with a little left over to buy black turtlenecks for all. It's not just Apple's baby — other companies owe far more to OpenBSD — but in open source a little symbolism goes a long way.

It would be easy for Steve Jobs, and the bosses of the other commercial technology companies who benefit from open source community, to resort to hard-line capitalism platitudes such as "no one owes you a living in this world." But hopefully some introspection will reveal that at the end of the day it's they who owe some of their and their company's success to individuals like de Raadt.

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