The Cost of Open Source

An email came into the feedback form and it has put me in a ranting mood like no other. It started a few days ago when I made a comment (more of a rant in itself) about how PartedMagic is amazing software. I said that I have absolutely no issues with them charging $50.00 for a copy. The email I got challenged me and said I was a hypocrite because I advocated for Free and Open Source Software and yet I’m okay with them charging money for their software.

Here was my response…

First off thank you so much for taking the time to write in. Regardless to what level I disagree with you I respect and appreciate the fact that you took the time to write in.

Let me start off by correcting you. I have never said nor will I ever advocate software based on cost. Certainly when software has a lower barrier (see cost) to entry it will get more attention because there is less risk in trying it. If it was free and didn’t work out, you’re not out anything. Additionally, the mechanisms that are often required to enforce paid software mean that it may be less readily available for example, in the repos. All that said, what I’m really concerned about and what we mean when we speak of “free and open source software” is not “free” like I can go to the store and get free beer, but FREEdom as in, once I pay for the software I have now purchased it and it’s mine to do with what I please.

The reason this is so valuable, the reason I care so much, the reason we focus so heavily on this aspect is the freedom that comes with open source software means if the developer ever goes under, the development can be continued by ANYONE at ANYTIME. Additionally if the project goes a direction I don’t like I always have the option of hiring a developer and continuing the development of the software as I see fit.

I HAVE advocated and will CONTINUE to advocate that if you have a mission critical software infrastructure it better be free (as in freeDOM) and open source or else you open yourself up to a whole host of problems. If you’re not using free and open source software, than you are essentially stuck with whatever the software vendor is doing, be that going out of business, or going a direction that is wrong for your use case.

The length at which a software project is available at little or in this case no cost to the end user is irrelevant. Most public speakers do not get paid very well the first few years they go to speaking engagements. Once they build a reputation though, a speaking engagement can pay upwards of a few grand. Are we to say that because a given speaker did not have a good long track record of speaking at first and thus weren’t paid very much, if at all, that for the rest of their life they can not charge? Of course not! That would be ridiculous.

In a similar vain, software that has a long proven track record over a period of time has every right and SHOULD be charging for quality work. Developers want to eat, they want to have a nice house, they want to have nice things, just like you and I, so please put yourself in the developers’ shoes for a moment.

You have a special skill set; you worked hard for years to hone your skills. You are filled with passion for your craft and have spent and continue to spend many unpaid hours working because you want to “do more.”

On one hand you have proprietary software vendors that come to you and offer you a six figure income, benefits, vacation, a code of conduct, an office space, when your laptop dies you walk down to the help desk and get another, and when it’s outdated it’s replaced every two years on a contact from Altispeed. Your money is yours because you earned it, no one will question that, you may spend it on whatever you like. Your work, regardless of it’s quality, will be passed off to the user and handled by a support department.

On the other hand, you could go develop open source software, the pay will be whatever people care to donate, and the frequency will be whatever people are feeling that day/month/year. EVERY purchase you make will be scrutinized by the Internet because you used “their money” to buy said purchase. If you have an equipment failure, or if you need new equipment to test on, you’ll buy that out of your pocket. You’ll hear about every problem on Facebook G+ Twitter, Reddit, Telegram, and a few will use your bug reporting system, but everyone you meet will tell you what you need to fix.

Do you know what that kind of system leads to? It leads to developers having “real” jobs and taking FOSS (free and open source) jobs on the side because they’re passionate about the project.

If we paid voluntarily for free and open source software the way we’re willing to pay for proprietary garbage do you know what would happen? We would attract amazing developers to the FOSS side, and make the FOSS side far more attractive than the proprietary side because once we no longer have developers starving they can concentrate on what we want them concentrating on – making awesome software without proprietary restrictions.

You asked me why I think it’s okay to take something that was free yesterday and charge $50 for it today without warning? The answer my friend, is simple. It’s not only okay, it’s what NEEDS to happen because yesterday’s software didn’t have a 10 year track record of exemplary performance with mission critical problems solved. Today it does, so today they are going to charge 1/10th of what a proprietary vendor would charge, and companies like Altispeed are going to use it and have a return on investment that leaves the ROI of propriety solutions in the dust. Home / personal users can either contribute a few dollars or go torrent the software, but anyone who thinks a free and open source company owes them something for nothing, simply because they exist and want it, will get no sympathy from me.

Lastly, no one is “demanding” anything, they are offering a product at a price, if you think the product is worth it, pay it; if not don’t. Personally I’d pay a lot more than $50 for software I need to serve my clients.

That behavior is not only acceptable, but is fair, it is right, and it should be more popular.

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6 thoughts on “The Cost of Open Source

  1. You have made this position abundantly clear in the past, are you sure you weren’t just being trolled by this clown?

  2. “I HAVE advocated and will CONTINUE to advocate that if you have a mission critical software infrastructure it better be free (as in free beer) and open source or else you open yourself up to a whole host of problems.”

    Little confused by this. You’re arguing all mission critical software must be *free of cost* while simultaneously advocating a developer’s right to charge for software? That’s a little disjointed, no?

  3. Hello Noah,

    I feel there’s quite a bit of confusion in the Open Source community about exactly what “open source” means. This can lead to the sort of circumstance you described, where a previously “free” project starts to charge and folk get a whinge on.

    I’m not an expert, but from what I understand, Free and Open Source software (FOSS) is software released under a license that grants permission for anyone to modify and redistribute a software, without charge. However, it doesn’t necessarily grant anyone the ability to _obtain_ that software for free. The author of the software is entirely at liberty to charge, if s/he so wishes. However, if I purchased a copy, I could then redistribute it myself, for a 10-fold mark-up, or for free. I’m free do with “my” copy whatever I like.

    If it’s a copyleft license, like the GPL, then any redistribution of the software – or any derivative work – has to be made available under the same license. The code is open source, and free to use as you want, yet may be charged for.

    In contrast, a permissive license, such as the BSD or MIT licenses, allows the software to be redistributed under any license. The rights of the original license do not need to granted in a derivative work. It could even be made proprietary, so that subsequent users of that derivative work do not have a legal right to redistribute the derivative work. However, the code may still be “open source” – in that the it is open to anyone to inspect and audit.

    All “open source” means, is that the code can be inspected. It could be proprietary, illegal to redistribute or modify, yet open source. The code could be open source one minute, then subsequent derivative works made closed source the next, if the original license was either non-Free, or permissive. If, on the other hand, the license was copyleft, such as GPL, then that code could not subsequently be made proprietary, ever (and so would obviously also remain open source).

    From what you’re saying, it seems that you value the principles of the copyleft licenses, such as GPL. Software released under this license would allow you to fork a project, change code, redistribute and so forth, in the event that the original vendor ceases to support the project for whatever reason. The vendor would be at liberty to request payment for the software, however it would also be entirely legal for someone to buy the program, then seed it as a torrent. It would not be illegal to obtain the software by torrenting from a third-party – unlike the unauthorised sharing of propriety software, which is usually an offence (at least, in Europe and US).

    I’m not sure what the situation is as regards the original license under which PartedMagic was distributed. If it was GPL, then anyone would be at liberty to pick up the last version released under that license, for free, fork it, redistribute it themselves, and carry on their merry way.

    Likewise, PartedMagic would be free to charge, or maybe even relicense to a permissive, or proprietary model from any given point (although if their product is itself a derivative work of other GPL licensed projects, then that wouldn’t be possible).

    Proprietary open source code has advantages over closed source, in terms of privacy and security auditing – anyone can see what the code is doing. However, it does fail in the “freedom dimension” – it’s not free to change, or distribute.

    I’ve never used PartedMagic, but if I were to consider purchasing it then it’d certainly be a point in it’s favour if it were both open source and Free (as in Freedom). If that is the case – on both counts – then I can see no valid reason whatsoever to bitch about the developers having the temerity to charge a fee for the fruits of their labour. The reason would seem an invalid understanding of “Free”, combined with a sense of injustice, borne from a culture of ‘gimme gimme gimme” entitlement.

    Ramble complete! 🙂

  4. Further to above, the definition of “Open Source” is a little more complicated than I expressed.

    Your post prompted me to go back and review my understanding of the definitions today – this is a solid source of information: https://opensource.org/docs/definition.php

    “Open Source Software”, or OSS, doesn’t just mean access to the source code – it also carries with it the Freedoms which we’re discussing here (freedom to change, redistribute, etc).

    Open Source isn’t necessarily the same thing as open source; the former being a formal definition (Open Source Definition), and the latter simply alluding to the fact that the source is available to inspect. It’s all about the license; software that has open source code needn’t have an Open Source license, however all software that has an Open Source license does have to have open source code.

    So, whether or not a software is Open Source all depends on if it has an Open Source license, rather than it simply being a matter of your ability to peer at the code.

    However, in practice, most projects that publish their code for review are also Open Source, as per the OSD. The licenses and conditions which are allowed to be attributed to derivative works of OSS are dependent upon the license of the original (i.e. copyleft, permissive; GPL, BSD, e.t.c.).

    Ok, now I really will STFU 🙂

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