Why free should not always mean cost-free

More and more I realize that there is a misconception about free software. Many people tend to believe that free software actually means software that should not cost any money. They somehow find natural and fair the fact that some people may work voluntarily in order to produce software, which the rest can use to make money without having any legal obligation to contribute either money or effort back upstream.

As I see it, free software should be free from cost for all to use and build upon, BUT using or building upon free software to make a profit should not be cost-free. That’s a straightforward and very fair model. Also, it seems to be the only realistic concept that could drive money back to those who invested their time and effort producing free software. I know that currently there is no free software license that makes a distinction between commercial and non-commercial use and thus be the solid ground for such a software production ecosystem. But, who knows… maybe we see one in the near future. Such a software license would make a difference in the way we perceive the “doing business with free software” concept that people talk about these days.

For content and media, there are the Creative Commons licenses, some of which make it possible for creators to provide their work for free, while at the same time they still reserve the right to selectively make their work available for commercial purposes under different terms. That’s the beauty of those licenses. They are made to solve real problems and that’s why I highly respect them.

Why free should not always mean cost-free by George Notaras, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Copyright © 2011 - Some Rights Reserved

About George Notaras

George Notaras is the editor of G-Loaded Journal, a technical blog about Free and Open-Source Software. George is a GNU/Linux enthusiast, a self-taught programmer and system administrator. He strongly believes that "knowledge is power" and has created this web site to share the IT knowledge and experience he has gained over the years with other people. George primarily uses CentOS and Fedora and spends some of his spare time developing open-source software. Follow George on Twitter: @gnotaras

13 responses on “Why free should not always mean cost-free

  1. Lyle Permalink →

    Would be nice to compensate the hard work of others but how do you do something like this with out the same licensing fee problems of non-free software?

  2. George Notaras Post authorPermalink →

    Admittedly, this is a big challenge. However, the existence of such a software license would give the community the chance to exercise various ways to implement commercial licensing of free software. I am quite certain that “natural selection” would work in this case like it has worked with anything that has happened in the Free Software ecosystem until today and that we would finally work out any issues related to licensing fees.

    On the other hand, the fact that commercial licensing is not problem-free should not be an excuse for using the work of others for commercial purposes without contributing anything back. Donations never really worked for the vast majority of free software projects. Neither individuals nor commercial organizations are willing to pay for something which they can legally use for free. So, in my opinion, something else needs to be done.

  3. Dimitris Permalink →

    Hey George,

    Interesting blog entry… however…

    The misconception you are talking about stems from the fact that lots of Open Source Creators and Developers do choose to give away a version of their products for free and also reqlinquish control to the community formed around
    said open source project. Take Asterisk for example. There’s a community run edition and then there is the one that Digium develops and sells hardware and support for.

    Same thing with lots of other Open Source software. Untangle, Smoothwall, Red Hat, Canonical, Oracle (They open sourced Virtualbox but did not open-source the extensions plugins [For USB, network and other goodies] and they closed-sourced Java again (or they’re going to at some point))

    Where in the GPL or similar licenses does it say that one can’t charge for specific uses of the open source project that uses said licenses such as building another open-source project or building a piece of business software running on top of Open Source platforms and frameworks? I think the problem here is how the wealth that is being acquired by basing any business or business-related software on open source software is distributed and that my friend is a rather business related issue not an open-source issue.

    My notion of Free and Open Source software is that the freedom that you get is not from cost but from distribution and sharing restrictions on the source code of such products and projects that would otherwise be using proprietary licenses. It doesn’t impose restrictions… the creator of such a project can create his/her own business model according to his notion of what will place him/her in a good position within the market.

    The way I understand the GPL it does not impose any restrictions on making money out of projects using the GPL license. If I’m way off to lunch on this one please correct me and give me specific examples where the GPL or the BSD licenses actually hinder FLOSS creators from charging for specific use of their products.

    Creative Commons Licenses are solving the set of problems that is inherent in the use of digital media and the restrictions on digital content use and construction are slightly different than the ones imposed by proprietary software.

    It would also be interesting to see references on how the market in it’s current shape and form, embraces or not the Free/Libre Open Source concept and what trends and practices are currently in place to circumvent the FLOSS hinderances from the business perspective so as to have a spherical view of the whole issue.

  4. anonymous Permalink →

    Good luck with that. It’s already hard enough to get people to even TRY linux, unless it’s an android phone. It’s too hard! It’s too different! My favorite software doesn’t run on it! All my friends have shiny white computers that their dads bought for them! All valid points.

    Think about it. Imagine if someone opened “Donux,” a chain of donut shops where you could have all the donuts and coffee you wanted for free. How could another donut shop compete with that? They couldn’t.

    Unless most people had never heard of them. And the donuts are square, and don’t taste like donuts you’re used to. And you have to finish baking them yourself. And sometimes, for no readily apparent reason, your donuts suddenly become inedible. Of course, that’s easy to fix if you know how! But you don’t know how. You could try to get help in a donut forum, and sometimes you’d find what you need, but the solution might be a 20-step process…and other times your request for help would be ignored. Sometimes you’d find yourself tearing your hair out, just trying to successfully eat one donut.

    For some people, maybe one percent of the population, it would be worth it. “Free” donuts! But most people would just head over to the neighborhood donut shop where their friends hang out, spend a buck and a half, and get a perfectly decent donut.

    I like square donuts, and I know you do too. But nobody wants to pay for them.

  5. Steven Permalink →

    I don’t really agree with any of this. Your opinion is your opinion but if you have a problem with the license then don’t use it. Put in the work to create a license fulfilling your needs. You are talking about using a specific license but you are disagreeing with the license and that makes no sense to me, any developer publishing software under any license should know and agree with the license he is using or he shouldn’t use it and that’s that.

  6. Paul Permalink →

    Perhaps an analogy from the music world will be helpful. I will be much happier contributing to the efforts of a relative unknown rather than to the likes of a megastar who has made many millions already. My guess is that many developers of free software are already well paid employees in the industry, and that much of open source may be showcasing skills for prospective employers. Nothing wrong with that, just don’t be duplicitous and claim altruism as the motivating factor.

  7. George Notaras Post authorPermalink →

    First of all, I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

    @Dimitris:

    > Take Asterisk for example. There’s a community run edition and then there is the one that Digium develops and sells hardware and support for.

    I agree that a business model is currently possible. But this business model is not based on the software itself, but on selling other services related to the software. There is a lot of risk involved in this. Another company, having more resources and better public relations, can still take your code, build upon it, offer support services and sell hardware at lower prices and eventually eliminate you. There is nothing that could restrict them.

    What I try to do is see whether it is possible to have a different business model by selling the Commercial Rights of the software.

    > The way I understand the GPL it does not impose any restrictions on making money out of projects using the GPL license.

    This is true. But if you look at it more closely you realize that the GPL or any other free software license is not really made for doing any kind of business with the software itself. This is because even if you sell GPL software, a third party may fork it, modify it and redistribute it and you cannot really do anything about that. So, the only way to make money out of it is by selling support contracts or hardware. But, as I mentioned above, there is much risk involved in such a model.

    @anonymous:

    >Think about it. Imagine if someone opened “Donux,” a chain of donut shops where you could have all the donuts and coffee you wanted for free. How could another donut shop compete with that? They couldn’t.

    The Donux example is good. But such a business needs money to run. How would you fund it? Donations could possibly do it to some extent, but like it has happened with free software it wouldn’t work that well in the end. Also, it wouldn’t be a fair model since only a small percentage of Donux customers would donate. This is a natural thing. If they are not legally obliged to donate, only a small percentage will actually help you.

    @Paul:

    >My guess is that many developers of free software are already well paid employees in the industry

    IMHO “many developers” is not really enough.

    >Nothing wrong with that, just don’t be duplicitous and claim altruism as the motivating factor.

    No, this has nothing to do with altruism. It’s just common sense. People currently provide the industry with material at zero cost. Anyone can fork any free software project and start offering support contracts without contributing anything upstream. At the same time, the upstream project still does the main development of the software, they debug it, they maintain the community and they usually get nothing back. It’s just insane.

  8. anonymous Permalink →

    >The Donux example is good. But such a business needs money to run. How would you fund it?

    I think that’s a question for Richard Stallman, but I’ll take a stab at it. How do you fund anything? The question breaks down into two options — A: How do you fund something that’s given away for free, or B: How do you make people want to pay for something?

    A: There’s advertising (not that I’d like to see that. See Idiocracy.) Advertising funds the search engine you use, the social network you (maybe, not me) waste your time on, the network TV shows you watch. In this paradigm, the user is the product.

    Or there’s an external source of funds: your public library, public television, art museums, highways. (Sure, let’s add another tax!)

    Or it’s not funded at all. Who paid for the development of language? Of Mathematics? You could say that these tools were funded by untold numbers of small personal contributions, each made altruistically or for personal utility, then shared. Language, of course, is a convoluted, illogical mess that, with enough built-in redundancy, works well enough. FOSS is kind of like Esperanto — it’s great, but who ya gonna talk to?

    On the other hand, there’s B: make something that’s so desirable that people will gladly pay for it. If it’s good enough, people will actively seek it out, even with no advertising. (Crack, for example — there are no ads for that!)

    I believe Linux had a great opportunity a few years ago when Vista came out. That was sort of the New Coke of operating systems. It’s what got me started with Ubuntu. I would have paid $ for it! But instead, I paid for it with time: time to research it, to install it, to troubleshoot it, to tweak it. Now, there’s 7, which isn’t THAT bad, and comes pre-installed on your new computer that you grab at the big box store. E-Z. (I don’t use 7, but my employees do — try running UPS WorldShip on Linux. You can’t.)

    So, you could have free donuts and napkins that are literally “branded” with logos for neighorhood businesses, and you have to pay for the coffee and, maybe, sprinkles.

    Or you could have donuts for free, but you have to pay for a hotel room to get them. This approach already works.

    Or you could have a government Donut Nutrition Program, where you can get donuts with, say, food stamps. This has been done, more or less.

    Or you could have square donuts that are simply so darned delicious that you would do anything to get one. Look up “square donuts” and you’ll see that this has also been done (which was news to me!)

    My preference, if applied to FOSS? Make the software so awesomely good and easy to use, from beginning to end, that you just HAVE to have it.

    And we simply are not there. Tried editing video on Linux?

    Yeah.

    Darn, now I’m hungry for a donut.

  9. George Notaras Post authorPermalink →

    @anonymous:

    I generally agree with your views. But I would really like free-software to be more business friendly.

    I admit that finding a funding source for a FOSS project has been puzzling me for a while… The only good solution I could think of is the one I wrote in the post. By selling the Commercial Rights of the code and thus be able to make a profit and to also reward the project’s contributors, so as to keep improving the product.

    >And we simply are not there. Tried editing video on Linux?

    Of course I have and it has been a traumatic experience… :)

  10. Martijn Permalink →

    I don’t really think the Donux comparison is that great. It suggests that the traditional round donuts come without flaws. But if these traditional donuts represent Windows, that’s not realistic. Yes, people are used to it (like the taste and shape of round donuts). But let me just mention a few issues: viruses, spyware, blue screen of death, incompatible hardware (Vista) etcetera.

    So if using this comparison you really want to claim that Windows just always works, and Linux often doesn’t and think you’re missing something.

    The main reason people use windows is simply that they’re used to it and often don’t even know other options exist.

  11. Anonymous Permalink →

    The reason “no free software license [...] makes a distinction between commercial and non-commercial use” is because the programmers that make/use these licences don’t mean free as in beer, they mean free as in freedom.

    They don’t generally care about profit and, if they do, they’ll exploit it commercially themselves with dual-licensing.

  12. George Notaras Post authorPermalink →

    @Martijn:
    Thanks for your notice but the Windows vs Linux comparison is not really the problem we deal here with. So, please accept that it was just an example. Thanks ;)

  13. Abercrombie Permalink →

    For some people, maybe one percent of the population, it would be worth it. “Free” doughnut! But most people would alignment of the community where the donut shop friend to go out to play, spend a buck and a half, and get a perfect decent doughnut. Only to eat a doughnut!

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