Monday, February 28, 2011

Open Source Software is not Free

When you have been suggesting free open source software to people as longs as I have you are bound to run into at least a few people believe FOSS is only for "cheap" people (I've found typically these people have Microsoft Certifications). They accuse you of only using free software because it comes at no cost to you. Even if this was the first reason you gravitated towards FOSS, odds are if you are still here after some months there is now more to it than just "free of cost".

One of my favorite quotes is:

Nothing is ever free.

I believe this statement to be true for a number of reasons. The important thing to recognize is that I believe the "free" in this quote and the "free" in FOSS are two different types of "free". In the quote the "free" refers to a monetary value. Even if you pay no monetary value for software - that software cost someone, somewhere, something. Whether that something is a paycheck for the software developer coming from a company backing the project or it is simply a dedicated individual hacking at code during his spare moments - that "free" software comes at a cost to someone.

Now - what do I believe the "free" in FOSS means? Freedom of course! The code is open - you are allowed to change and redistribute it as you wish. Add features, fix bugs, or fork a project all together. You are not tied down in messy, restrictive EULAs - your computer is truly your own. You are not "renting" your software. Because this software is free of cost to the end user you also have the freedom to change at any time. Don't like KDE? Try Enlightenment. Don't like Fedora? Try OpenSUSE. Don't like Try LibreOffice. (This list never really stops)

I've found that the longer most people use FOSS the more likely they are to contribute back to the projects they enjoy. We can all help in different ways - if you can spare a few dollars for your favorite project I'm sure they won't say no - if you cannot there are plenty of other ways to help - code, support, art... If you haven't already drop a message to your favorite open source project and do so to find out how you can help! Without community backing the world of FOSS would not be the thriving ecosystem it is today.

~Jeff Hoogland


  1. Jeff, I believe the persons you speak of do consider only the monetary aspect when the say, "nothing is ever free".
    However, when I make the same statement I am speaking of far more than monetary concerns. Yes, FOSS is free to us as in Libre or even monetarily. But the fact is someone has committed their resources to create FOSS.
    One step farther, I maintain that the statement, "the best things in life are free", misses the mark. When I point out to other that the sun provides the beautiful sunrise or sunset by burning itself out, the usual response is that they won't be around when the sun goes dark or else they find the thought depressing. I, on the other hand, believe this using of resources is what make the beautiful, beautiful. I offer my respect, my gratitude and some of my resources for those who make FOSS possible.

  2. The manufacturing costs for software can be very low, though. Just bandwidth and anyone can have a copy. Unlike tangible goods, like a car, if you take my idea, I still have it, and software is just codified ideas. So, if I sell a piece of software to Jim, and he gives a copy to Bob, we now all have it. That makes the economic picture very different than material goods. When we add the freedom to do with it as you please, as you have with physical goods you own, it drives the price down near the cost of manufacture. It can all be very hard to find a way to monetize, which is important because programmers need to eat, but I am sure we will get there.

  3. Grant, the vast majority of programmers don't work making applications for sale. They work making tools or adapting tools to user's needs.

    When I worked in a large IBM mainframe shop, there were 5 "database analysts" and another 4 or 5 "systems programmers" just to maintain the working system. They weren't making "applications" as such, they were just tweaking, optimizing, and otherwise making certain that everything worked.

    Programmers provide a service, people pay for that service.

    F/OSS actually ENABLES programmers, because with access to the source code, they CAN make changes needed by the customer, and be paid by that customer for making it work for them.

    Then that code can be kept in-house, like Google, or sent back upstream as improvements, or even released as a custom fork.

    But that change, those optimizations, need never be lost.

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