Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

The Cost of Free

Furious! This describes the response of a portion of the Dutch free and open source afficionados when hearing about the idea that OpenOffice.org might get advertisements as part of the binary package. Jonathan Schwartz (Sun Microsystems), who launched the idea on his weblog (and already retracted it), was aware the idea could cause a furor. Strangely enough, the anger seemed limited to the Netherlands.

The newsfeeds archives and the ironclad memory of internet search engines reveal that the most vociferous opposition against the idea was heard in the Netherlands. The rest of the digital realm hardly paid any attention to it. Why not? Well, perhaps the rest of the world has a better understanding that free and open can and should not be confused with ‘gratis’ (i.e. free as in ‘free beer’). In the Netherlands, a country where being cheap is considered a thing of pride, ‘free beer‘ instead of ‘free speech’ seems to be more important. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but please refrain from making ludicrous statements like: “Sun (and others) don’t understand the GPL license (the LGPL actually) and advertisements and commercialization are not allowed under the license”. Funny, because if this is true, the GNU.org organization doesn’t understand it either, considering the article Selling free software.

It’s the attitude behind ‘hmmm nice, free beer’ that is flawed. Users of free and open source software, both corporate and private, need to consider the cost of free. Yes, developing, supporting and promoting the software is done by scores of volunteeers. But, developing the Linux kernel and bringing solid and reliable Linux distrutions to the market place also involves major corporations with commercial interests and needs. Development of the webbrowser Firefox floats on the millions made by an agreement between the Mozilla Foundation and Google.

Using free and open source software doesn’t come with freedom alone, but also with responsibilities, including the responsibility to contribute financially to the development of it. If you don’t want that and simply voice your ‘right’ to make ‘gratis’ use of the software. Well, you’d better stick to your illegally downloaded proprietary software.

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6 thoughts on “The Cost of Free

  1. It’s funny, I’d argue that most of the people rejecting the idea of ads argue that it limits freedom. It’s still gratis, after all.

    That said, even though there wouldn’t be anything illegal with adding ads, it does feel… Wrong. I wouldn’t like it. But I realize that development, hosting and whatnot costs money. If this is required to bring in that money, then so be it.

  2. Pingback: Boycott Novell » Links 09/12/2008: Vietnam Joins Asianux, Zimbabwe Government Moves to GNU/Linux

  3. David A on said:

    Wont there just emerge an OpenOfficeAdBlockPlugIn, that would be both ‘libre’ and ‘gratis’.

  4. If there are ads in software it is no longer gratis. You pay indirectly rather than directly, but still someone pays for it.

    Still, even if Sun put in ads in OpenOffice most distros would probably not include them, so who cares.

  5. Ari Torhamo on said:

    “Using free and open source software doesn’t come with freedom alone, but also with responsibilities, including the responsibility to contribute financially to the development of it.”
    There’s definitely no responsibility to contribute, financially or otherwise – especially for individual users, who use free software privately. Contributing is fully and genuinely voluntary – as it should be. To large part of those, who contribute a lot, contributing being voluntary is important part of the spirit which makes the to want to do what they do. If you’d like people to contribute more, it works better to let them feel the spirit, than tell them they have the responsibility to contribute. It’s also better that people contribute to things they are good at and which are close to their heart. For some it’s free software, for some others it may be charity, community work, environmental protection, human rights, etc.

    Most of what you wrote comes out as unfriendly to me, as if you wanted to make those who disagree with you to look stupid and feel bad. One important way to contribute to free software in my opinion is to respectful and constructive when communicating with others – especially when in disagreement.

    A welcome contribution from you to this discussion would be to analyse, why Sun Microsystems might need advertisements in OpenOffice.org, while hardly any other free or open source software has them. Or why there might be a lack of contributions to OpenOffice.org and what Sun might do to advance them.

  6. @ Ari
    This article used OpenOffice.org as an example case, but dealt with a more general trend. What I do know is that Sun Microsystems is doing quite a lot as commercial company to promote open source and is doing it with key assets, something few others companies did with their IP. The transition to a new profitable business model takes it’s time.

    I’m afraid your didn’t understand the gist of my argument. It wasn’t focused against users that use free and open source software and who do understand that their OS and programs didn’t fall from the sky. It is focused against those users who are in for the free ride and ‘demand’ this or that from free and open source developers. Am I unfriendly toward them? Yep, I am, though I didn’t use one foul word to express that 😉

    The free and open source development model brings with it the principle of reciprocity, not enforced but by moral obligation. That reciprocity can take many forms: contributing time, energy, skills, knowledge and hard currency. If the free riders do not feel that moral obligation to contribute neither and make their demands for high quality bug-free software with 100% uptime for the software repositories, well, I do prefer they stay with their illegal downloads.

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