Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Open Source Fundamentalism and Philanthropy

I'd like to share two random trains of thought in the area of free open source software. The first is my continued annoyance with the likes of Richard Stallman and his acolytes for their insistence that all software must be free and that commercial software vendors are somehow unethical. I hear this refrain time and time again on message boards and at geek fests around the world. What right do they have to tell me I can't sell software that I write? Why is it that selling software services is OK, but selling software is unethical? Is this not the same as saying all scientific discoveries and works of art must be free? What of the livelihoods of research scientists and artists? Who will fund general R&D? Should artists work only on commission, or give away their creations for free and charge for modifications? I have never heard an explanation that didn't boil down to a bizarrely software specific axiomatic belief.

On the other hand, free open source contributors are greatly underappreciated philanthropists. FOSS allows developers to share ideas and improve patterns and practices. Giving your valuable time to contribute to the body of software available to schools, underfunded research institutions and other worthy organizations is a great and noble thing. This sort of contribution helps level the playing field for programmers from developing nations by providing abundant free study material. Your FOSS component could be one of the gears that powers a key administrative application for a cash strapped hospital or charitable organization.

I am a huge fan of free open source software, and I've made my own modest contributions, but I don't like religious zealots in any context. I like blended models such as dual licensing and commercial software that is free to charitable organizations. I encourage those who are able to steal a few free hours here and there to contribute to the body of free open source software. It's a worthy form of global community service. As with many things, its best to travel the middle path.

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Comment by Chris Stark on January 25, 2008 at 1:36pm
Yeah. I think 'evil' is a rather overly-moralistic way of looking at the issue, and I think a lot of members of the community perceive software freedom as a black-and-white duality. If there's anything I've learned in my life, there's very little that falls into the neat categories of right vs wrong, free vs not, etc.

I personally feel that when an individual or group cannot (or will not) see the shades of gray, those individuals or groups have truly limited understanding of reality.

My apologies to any Hui members that program in binary. :)
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 25, 2008 at 1:23pm
Hi Chris,

Thank you for your response. You are correct in stating that open source / closed source and free / commercial are orthogonal concerns. The semantics get rather confusing, because some commercial software provides source to purchasers or select groups. My entry pertained to people that believe commercial software (most of which is closed source in relation to the public) is somehow evil.

> However, there's nothing in any of the free/open
> source licenses condemning commercial
> software

I wasn't referring to wording in the GPL or other commercial licenses. I'm referring to writings and talks by Stallman and folks of similar mind that condemn commercial and/or closed source products. I believe that an open source model with paid services works well in some contexts and a commerical software model (SaS or packaged) works well in others.

While we are on the topic of the GPL, I will say I am not a fan of hyper viral licenses. I also think the self apologetic wording of the LGPL is rather amusing. It seems as if its trying to make those that use it feel a little guilty :-)
Comment by Chris Stark on January 25, 2008 at 11:41am
Hi Daniel, I think extremism is dangerous in every context I can think of. However, there's nothing in any of the free/open source licenses condemning commercial software -- software that you sell. The condemnation is for closed, proprietary software, whether for fee or not. That said, selling free/open source software would mostly seem to defeat the purpose, as your first customer would be able to redistribute the software you just sold them. There's ways to make it work (Google 'Pykota' -- it's a print quota management system that is GPL licensed but sold for fee).

Yes, this is totally splitting hairs and arguing over semantics, but there is a difference. That said, I do agree that we developers are artists, and we should be compensated for our work. Zealots and absolutists will always accompany just about every aspect of life. You're not the only one irritated by them... :)


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