When We Are Free

Posted on 14th June 2007

JJ made a point last night, that I also agree with. When I got home, following a chain of blog links and I came across an article written by Martin Belam, about his wifes feeling towards an aspect of DRM. She makes a very good point, that had JJ, Brian and I coincidentally discussing at length yesterday evening at the Birmingham Perl Mongers meeting. I hope Martin's wife doesn't mind me requoting it here:

"The thing I don't get is this core of people that want everything for free. Artists still have to eat. Why do these people think that they are entitled to get everything for free for ever?"

JJ's point was that the biggest failing of the Linux community was the expectation that everything they want on their desktop should be free. As a consequence the Linux community, to a large extent, has become very closed one. The idea of Open to me, is more about encompassing different forms of expression, being inclusive rather than exclusive. In terms of software that can also mean different forms of distribution. As a corporate, people like Sun, Novell, etc can afford to give away parts of their software portfolio, as they have gained a credible market share for their brand to allow other large corporates to want to buy support contracts and services at very high rates. Ubuntu has been able to come into existence because Mark Shuttleworth was willing put the money down to make it happen. Big players and very rich people can afford to do that, if they choose. But what about the little guy?

Certainly in the UK and probably in the rest of the world, the people that take risks are the individuals and small businesses. They can because there often isn't the risk or outlay that would be required by a large business. As a consequence, when an idea does work it's often taken a lot of research, time and effort to get it into a state worthy of release. That's research, time and effort that the designer, developer or company don't get anything back for doing that work. Suppose as an individual, I create a piece of software that manages website. It takes 4 years to get that product stable and complete enough to release. Why should I be expected to just give it away?

The failing of the Open Source community is the expectation that everything should be free. While developers may choose to release their software as free, if they don't they are derided or sneered at. If my piece of software revolutionised the way websites could be created, and gives value for money, then why shouldn't I ask a nominal fee for it? The argument that the Open Source community seems to favour, is that I should charge a support contract. But that argument fundamentality fails to understand how business works. Support contracts work for big business because they need someone to blame when it all goes wrong. JJ gave the example of the supply chain for Vodafone, where one software supplier they use doesn't have a support contract with Vodafone, but via another suppler, because the software suppler is too small to guarantee a 24/7 support contract. Even though the other suppler can only provide a 24/7 telephone answering service, and still passes the details to the software supplier when they turn up for work in the morning.

I, as an individual, wouldn't get any support contracts from businesses around the world for my product. And even if I did, the chance of me providing realistic level of support is minimal. However, I could charge for my software and allow others to reap the benefit. While, I wouldn't necessarily reap great rewards, at least I would be getting some reward for all that research, time and effort getting the product into a state that others can take advantage of.

I find I keep having to ask every so often, 'why is it such a crime to make money?'. I have a family, I have a house and I have a life. If I want to have my own business, am I expected to work for nothing for 4 years and then give the software away for free and expect the support contracts to come rushing in, while in the meantime, my family starve, I lose my house and end up with no life? The biggest part of the UK's economic growth is the SMB (Small Medium Business) or SME (Small Medium Enterprise) markets. They help to employ a large part of the working population, but also help feed many of the larger businesses and corporations, thus helping to employ the remaining part of the working population. When MG Rover collapsed down the road here in Longbridge, the knock on effect to the smaller businesses who made parts for MG Rover was devastating. Several went out of business, while others had to cut their workforce. They can't work for free in the hope that the other manufacturers might use their products. And exactly the same is true of the software market. Individuals and small businesses create many products that are used by bigger companies. Sometimes those products might be suitable for release to the general public, but it shouldn't it be their choice whether they make a living from it and how?

Part of this closed mindset also means commercial developers are less likely to support Linux, which is a bad thing. While I personally like what Linux and the Open Source community has to offer, and dislike DRM, I'm also able to be realistic and understand that people want to protect something they have created. I dislike DRM, not because I think the concept is bad, but the fact that all the implimentations of it are flawed and misunderstand both the demands of retailer and the consumer. However, the problem that things like DRM has uncovered, is that the Open Source community's resistence to anything commercial for "their" operating system, has reduced the choice available, and has not allowed developers to work with the community to help make Linux a vibrant alternative to governments, emerging markets and the like. Currently Microsoft are able to offer great incentives to the decision makers, simply because many of the vendors of peripheral devices and software only support Microsoft products. That's not allowing freedom of choice. It's also not allowing decision makers to make informed decisions on the systems they wish to deploy.

An individual or small business, wishing to make a commercial product available on Linux is currently met with derision and considered to be evil. Until this mindset opens up and accepts that we can all work together, Linux on the desktop is always going to be playing catchup, and even Linux on the server is occasionally going to have to accept that it cannot compete when a requirement is run a piece of software that isn't available for it. Freedom is also about Freedom Of Choice. If there isn't a choice, then is it any wonder why so many restricted or flawed installations occur?

Although just to be clear, the website management tool I've written called Labyrinth, that's take over 4 years of my free time in research and development, will be available as Open Source Software in the future. I don't believe I have a product that would warrant selling as a commercial product, as I don't feel I can devote the time and effort to making it into a marketable product. I will however, be looking to encourage potential clients who want me to design and develop their website to come to me. The fact that I will use Labyrinth is incidental, but the fact that I created it and know it better than anybody else is my unique selling point.

There are other products out there that do website management. Some are free, some are not. Some do much much more than Labyrinth, while others are very basic. I'm not interested in trying to compete with them, as Labyrinth was written to fulfill my requirements to administer websites that I created. The fact that I've been able to use it for other sites has been great. But had I not had that attitude and decided to make it a commercial product, why should I expect the ridcule and scorn of the Open Source community because I decided to make money?

Libre and Freedom is about choice and open minds not about money.

When We Are Free.

Comments

Martin's wife says...

Claire doesn't mind you quoting her at all - although it seems that she is slightly annoyed that in my article I coyly referred to "my wife" rather than actually calling her Claire! For the record, I think you make some very salient points in this article as well. I'm very much in favour of using free and open software wherever possible, but I'm also very much in favour of people having the right to choose whether their work should be given away for free or not.

Posted by Martin Belam on Wednesday, 11th July 2007


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