Free (open source) is good. Free (cost) is bad.

Having source code for software is invaluable... but we really need to get back to paying the developers for all of it.

I would like to put forward an idea… that may not be terribly popular.

  • Free (as in “Libre”, open source) is good

  • Free (as in “beer”, no cost) is bad

I’ve been an advocate for “Free and Open Source Software” for a long, long time.

The benefits of having source code for software available, under a reasonable license, is terribly handy. In so many ways.

  • Makes it much easier (read: possible) to do full security analysis of software.

  • Allows software to be continued after the original developer ceases development — thus significantly increasing the longevity of software (at least potentially).

  • Provides the opportunity to learn from the code — both from a “learn how to do things” perspective, as well as an historical perspective.

  • Porting to new platforms? Adding new features? So many possibilities are opened up that (might) have not existed if the code were not available to users of the software.

In most circumstances, I see providing source code of a software package as a very good thing. Maybe that means the code is publicly available, to everyone, under the GPL. Perhaps the code has a “delayed release” (where code for older versions is published publicly, but the latest release is closed). Or, possibly, the code is given only to the paying customers of the software.

Lots of possibilities. All of them provide (at least some) of the benefits in that beautiful, bullet list above.

But… (and this is a big but)…

Having the majority of our software be completely free of charge — meaning we don’t need to pay money for it — is a very, very bad thing.

How much did you pay for that Linux Distribution you are running? How about that web browser?

Most likely… not a dime.

This has multiple (extremely negative) effects…

No-cost Software devalues everyone and everything

By not paying for something you wish to use (or own), you are sending the message to whoever created it… that their time has no value.

And that type of product? It, likewise, has no value. This has multiple effects:

  • Reduces (or eliminates) the income of the developer.

  • Makes the developer feel all crummy inside.

  • Causes other products in that category to be forced to also cut the cost (often to become completely free as well).

  • You are also declaring that your time, and the things you use, have little (or no) value… which has a distinct, negative impact on how you feel about yourself and the things you use.

Let’s dive into exactly why those are such bad things.

If you aren’t the customer, you’re the product

“Hey! Lower costs are good! I like lower costs! I like free things!”

Yeah. Here’s the problem with software (and software based services) that have no monetary cost to you:

The company (or people) that build it… still need to make money somehow.

Which means that, since you are not their customer (remember, you didn’t pay them), they need someone else to pay them.

What is the asset they have to sell to their new customer (often another company or a government)? YOU.

You are now the asset. You are the product being sold.

Your data. Your time. Your resources.

You are now cattle. To be raised and cultivated as efficiently as possible in order to achieve the highest revenue “per head.” Gross, right?

Developers need to eat

If the people building the software, and running the services, are being paid enough to live comfortable, happy lives… they can continue to improve the software. Or build new software. Or support the software.

Take away the ability for the software developers to eat?

You’ve just eliminated their ability to focus on that software you’re using.

Maybe you can get some part time help out of them if they are being really, really nice. But that’s about it.

That developer will now be forced, in order to survive and support their family, to seek revenue elsewhere. That means one of two things are going to happen.

  1. They will now spend most of their time on a different project. Which means less work on (or around) that software you’re using.

  2. Or they will need to find someone else to pay them for their work on the software… see “If you aren’t the customer, you’re the product” above.

Either way, the result is not good.

Reduces good vibes

This one may not be quite as obvious as the rest… but it’s extremely important, and terribly obvious to anyone who’s worked in marketing or studied the psychology of pricing (and the like).

When we don’t pay for something, we tend to attribute less value to it.

But when we work hard, and save our money to purchase that thing? It has more value. Emotional value. We feel a stronger bond with it.

The people that made it? They feel good too. Because you paid for it. You said, “Thank you for making this valuable thing, I appreciate you and respect and value your time.” That makes people feel darn good.

Pay for a piece of software? You made the developer happier — directly improving their lives — while giving yourself a positive bond to the software you purchased. Plus the good feelings of making someone else feel good.

Good vibes. Lots of them. All around.

Compare that to downloading, say, an operating system or web browser (or some other piece of software). For free.

Besides forcing the developer to turn you into a product to be sold… you’re also telling the developer that you don’t value their time. Their creation.

Bad vibes. All sorts of bad vibes.

Free but not free

I would propose that most (if not all) software should have a monetary cost.

Doesn’t need to be expensive. Doesn’t need to be hundreds or thousands of dollars.

But how much is a web browser worth to you? $20?

How about your Operating System? Or Office Suite? Those have value, right?

We should be paying for them. For all the reasons we’ve talked about.

BUT.

That same software should also provide source code — at least in some form, in some way. At least most of the time.

Maybe the source gets released after a set amount of time after the software is released. Maybe only paying customers get access to the code. Something to provide the many benefits of having the software be “open source” or “Free Software”.

Many will disagree with this stance.

We have been conditioned, over the last several years, that software should just be given to us. Without any cost.

That we, as users, deserve to be given software. That developers who charge for their software are greedy and evil.

Not only is that stance not representative of reality (see all the words above), but this point of view is directly harmful to… absolutely every one of us. Every developer. Every end user. All of us suffer — in a variety of ways — as we force software (and software based services) to have zero cost to the end user.

And that needs to change.


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