Open-source and free software: Free, as in beer

The difference in reasons why people who create, manage, and develop open-source and free software, and why end users consume it is a major philosophical disconnect.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Last week, I wrote a snarky post about the cloud. A good many of you understood the humor behind the way the piece was positioned, but heck of a lot of you didn't, as evidenced in the talkbacks.

That's OK, I don't expect everyone to "get it", especially since when I am writing in future tense, a lot of things can change.


Of course, I'm rarely ever wrong, since I'm usually the smartest person in the room and I have Hari Seldon-like insight into the future of this industry, but don't let that deter you from reading my stuff and by all means please continue to get angry at me.

I like the smell of angry Talkbacks and the seething bile of hate mails in the morning. It means I made you think. Which means I did my job.

One of the points that seems to have gotten some feathers riled up is my discussion of subscription-based software in the cloud versus open-source software in the context of it not costing money to the end user, and my accusers said that it sounds like I associate unwillingness to pay for software with those who would commit software piracy.

If you didn't read the original piece, here's the substance of it.

Things like Office suites and content creation suites like Adobe CS6 and stuff like Intuit Quickbooks Pro cost a lot of money to produce, because a tremendous amount of man hours go into their development.

Traditionally, one might spend $200 to $400 on such a suite per PC, and then, in four years or so, upgrade for a lesser amount That's not accounting for things like academic or student discounts, which still exist in a subscriber model.

That's if you honor things like End-User License Agreements and you don't take that copy and install it on, say, 10 more PCs, or you never bought the software in the first place and are using pirated license keys.

If you're one of those people, then all I have to say is that you're just going to have to pay for your software like everyone else. Or try your hand at the open-source stuff like LibreOffice that was designed for folks who don't want to pay for software, and see if it works for you.

However, if you're a law-abiding citizen, and you've also budgeted for your own IT needs and understand that software is a cost of doing business, your costs are going to essentially remain the same or might even be cheaper.

OK, first, let's get the 800-pound elephant out of the way. Yes, I work for Microsoft. But this argument and the arguments brought forth in this piece has nothing to do with Microsoft, so let's just level-set that right there.

I also consider myself extremely qualified to talk freely about open-source and free software, the licenses that exist within that sphere, as well as the communities and projects that revolve around them. You might want to read my 2011 article "Why I'm Better Than an Open Source Surrender Monkey" for some back-story on that, in case you haven't read any of my material for the past, I dunno, 15 years.

Now, let's talk about why open-source and free software is created.

Open source is software that is created using any number of licenses conforming to the official definition by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

Free software is created primarily using the GPL and the LGPL, the two licenses that are considered the most ethical and acceptable by its creator, the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

There are other software libre licenses deemed as GPL-compatible, and it is also possible to have a Free Software license that is not compatible with the GPL.

Many if not all of these are also OSI-approved, but those two get the FSF's highest blessing.

While they share a number of conforming licenses in common, including the GPL and LGPL, the two philosophies should never, ever be confused with each other. Open Source is a more inclusive philosophy overall, there are defining tenets of both that have caused strife between adherents of each.

I have talked about this at length in a post about The future of open-source thought leadership, way back in 2009. But it all basically boils down to this: Open source is all about the free sharing and distribution of code, whereas Free Software is all about the creation of software that is ethical.

And, by the way, when I say "ethical", I mean conforming to the tenets of free software as laid down by its founder, Richard Stallman. With free software, the buck stops at Stallman.

Which is why whenever the FSF talks about software, it all inevitably comes down to "free as in freedom". Not that the software itself doesn't cost anything to consume.

Before we go any further with this, we should just eliminate the notion that open-source and free software doesn't cost anything. Because it does. It costs a lot.

Somebody has to pay for the development of this software. Maybe you, as an end user, don't, especially if you don't donate to these projects, but somebody does, whether it is the employer of the programmers who create it, regardless of whether they are directly sponsored to create the software or not. The programmer salaries and the assets needed to generate the code need to get paid for by somebody.

The programmers, whether they are working for a big company like Red Hat or IBM, or contributing individually, have to pay their bills and support their families.

This is especially true in the case of an individual contributor, where a huge amount of the code base for GNU/Linux distributions comes from. These folks devote many man hours to writing a component, and have to buy computer equipment, broadband, and any number of other things to sustain that development. Not to mention pay for groceries and their kids' college education and medical bills and whatnot.

If you were to trace every single component of what goes into, say, a modern GNU/Linux distribution like Ubuntu, and find out where all the money came from to develop it, you'd be blown out of your mind.

And please, don't say "Mark Shuttleworth", because although he has contributed a ton of personal assets to Canonical, Ubuntu itself incorporates a significant base of code from the Debian project, which is managed by Software in the Public Interest (SPI). Not to mention other projects like GNOME and a gazillion others that I don't have the bandwidth to mention.

So we know why open-source and free software is created. So why is it consumed?

If you were to tell me that the balance of open-source and free software were consumed because the end user has read Eric S Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar and fully supports and understands the objectives of the OSI, or has read any number of Richard M Stallman's missives on software freedom, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

By the way, I do think anyone who consumes open-source software like a major GNU/Linux distribution like Ubuntu or downloads LibreOffice should be made to understand these basic concepts, and they should read ESR's and Stallman's works, among others.

As an FYI, I personally do not agree with the tenets of Stallman, but like any other ideology it needs to be interpreted directly from the source in order to be fully understood.

Look, while I am sure there are a bunch of folks who support the objectives of the OSI and also the FSF an use open-source and free software, there is a massive superset of people who simply download these things because they don't cost them any money.

Yes, I do recognize there are a lot of open-source and free software projects that are embraced by many folks because they perform an essential function that cannot be found in commercial software.

This is especially true with organizations that want to roll their own solutions, and where proprietary code may not necessarily serve the organization's interests, or they need it to fulfil a heterogeneous integration need.

Interop and open standards are awesome.

But this has nothing to do with the consumption of end-user application and desktop software, like LibreOffice and desktop GNU/Linux distributions. And that is where my arrows were aimed in my previous piece.

That is the hard reality of open-source and free software, and where the major disconnect is.

Forget sharing code and ideas. Forget the ethics of software. This is free as in beer, folks. Not freedom. And until this disparity between the people who create the software and those who consume it can be solved, both of these cultures will continue to struggle.

Because with appreciation and understanding and financial support comes ensured success, and those who do not support these projects with their dollars and other efforts are simply part of the problem.

Is there an unresolvable difference in ideology between those who consume and those who develop open-source and free software? Talk back and let me know.

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