Why Open Source Freeriding is a Good Idea

In the wake of a high profile controversy, it's clear: so-called freeriders should be encouraged, not condemned.
Posted February 24, 2015

Bruce Byfield

Are you cheating if you download open source software without paying for it? Recently, Linux distribution elementaryOS angered users by implying that you are -- an opinion that is hardly new, but no more valid than the last dozen times anyone voiced it.

Freeriding, downloading without donation is usually called.

Project member Cassidy James raised the issue while blogging about why elementaryOS' download interface had changed to include several payment options. In the last year, elementaryOS has been in the top ten page hits on Distrowatch, mainly because of its attention to aesthetic details such as icons and fonts. Perfecting such details is a painstaking task, yet James noticed that less than one-fifth of one percent of downloaders ever paid, and most of those paid ten dollars or less.

However, although free downloads were a tradition in open source software, James went on to say, elementary OS was under no obligation to provide them. Yet unless payments increased, the project might have to resort to "backdoor deals and advertising."

Then, to make the reactions worse, someone involved with elementaryOS apparently made a commented that, "you are a cheater if you download elementaryOS for free." The comment is now deleted, but survives in the discussion of it.

The incident was not the project's finest hour. One commenter described it as "Today's Daily Cringe."

A Financial Don Quixote

To anyone not familiar with free -- open source -- software, arguments against freeriding might sound reasonable. However, within free software, they sound unrealistic.

For one thing, nobody has ever made money from a distribution alone. In fact, the history of Linux is littered with the failures. Linspire, Mandrake, Progeny, Stormix -- all tried to profit from a distribution and failed. Canonical has been trying for a decade, and it couldn't manage the trick, despite regular infusions of cash from its founder. The only way Red Hat succeeded was to focus on selling services.

For another, the idea that project members must be reimbursed is only about five years old. Partly, it arises from the fact that the first generations of free software developers are aging, and naturally wish to support their families while doing what they love.

Many manage to do so by being sponsored by companies that are far-sighted enough to see that paying for a free software developer furthers its goals. However, the well-publicized success of a few crowdfunding campaigns has encouraged other projects in the idea that they can fund themselves instead of simply volunteering, while remaining independent.

It's a heady dream, but not a realistic one. Analyzing the success of free software crowdfunding campaigns on Indiegogo suggests that, for every success story like Raspberry Pi or LInux Voice magazine, there are over ten failures. Moreover, hardware projects have a greater chance of success than software ones.

The dream of making an independent living developing free software is an understandable one, but the odds are against it -- especially when you are one of several hundred similar projects, as elementaryOS is among distributions. Although some developers dislike corporate sponsorship, it remains the most likely way to get paid for free software work. Otherwise, the most you can expect from the odds is to off-set a few expenses while still running at a loss.

Pots, Kettles, and Blackness

Nor is elementaryOS in a position to argue against freeloader. The project is a third generation distribution, out of Debian by way of Ubuntu. Yet if elementaryOS pays anything to either of its ancestors, it has yet to mention the fact. To say the least, that makes any argument against freeriders hypocritical.

Of course, free software would be unable to function if every developer who borrowed code was considered to have the social obligation to pay. But the same can be said of the habits of users. Free software users experiment constantly, hopping between distributions and desktop environments before settling on their favorites -- assuming that they ever do. James may boast of two million downloads of elementaryOS, but that does not mean that it has two million users. Many of those downloads were likely installed in a virtual machine and used once, before being deleted and never used again.

Insist that users pay for the privilege of making elementaryOS part of their browsing of distros, and many would respond exactly as the elementaryOS team would respond if presented with a bill from Ubuntu -- they would decline, and move on.

James is right that nothing in the licenses obliges elementaryOS to give its software away without charging, but this is a case in which the letter of the law means less that the spirit. Nothing obliges users to run elementaryOS, either. Uses expect free downloads, and suggesting otherwise is a violation of their expectations, pure and simple.

Moreover, in expressing its position, elementaryOS has made what can only be called an elementary mistake. The fact is, even today, when much of free software is built by corporate sponsorship, its advocates remain suspicious of efforts to monetize any aspect.

To succeed in free software, a company needs to work overtime to show itself a trustworthy citizen of free software. It has to respect the communal expectations. It really wants to remain in good standing, it should donate code and features with no strings attacked. If a company is truly savvy, it will approach free software advocates in much the same way it would approach an advertising campaign. That is, looking for ways to increase goodwill and making sure that employees are on message. If something rash is said, damage control should be ready to go.

In insisting that elementaryOS deserves financial support, the project has made itself resemble a corporation. Perhaps that is not what its members intend, but the perception remains. By emphasizing its due, the project has taken a position against the communal norms.

Consequently, it is interpreted as manipulating the free software ethos. The fact that it is seen as wanting to take more than gives suggests that, as impressed as users are with the aesthetics of elementaryOS, many are not so impressed as to agree with its commands. If making a distribution was a card game, elementaryOS might be said to have overplayed its hand, and to have had its bluff called. In denouncing freeriders, the project has ended up looking like the corporate equivalent.

Going Against the Obvious

Like many aspects of free software, freeriders are counter-intuitive. From a capitalist perspective, freeriders may seem a parasite. Yet on closer look, they are a form of word-of-mouth advertising.

The fact that software can be downloaded at no cost encourages people to try it and to talk or write about it. Do they mean a loss of potential revenue? Perhaps. Yet without freeriders, there would be no potential at all, because fewer would have heard of the software, much less downloaded it.

Instead of lamenting a loss of revenue, elementaryOS needs to consider that imaginary loss part of its advertising budget. Encourage the freeriders to continue using elementaryOS, and there is a chance that some of them could eventually contribute. Or, if they never contribute, perhaps some of those they have encouraged to try elementaryOS will contribute. But, drive them away, and these chances disappear, possibly for good.

The situation is similar to the one that Neil Gaiman talks about in the video "Gaiman on Copyright Piracy and the Web." What at first seems to keep you from a living can turn out to be a long term benefit. Just as readers discover books largely through the recommendations of friends, so Linux users discover new distros by hearing friends or reviewers on the web enthuse. How could the situation be otherwise, considering that no version of Linux is available on the shelf of computer stores?

In other words, elementaryOS has done exactly the opposite of what it needed to do. Instead if disparaging freeriders, it needs to encourage them.

After all, freeriders are probably the main cause of their success in the first place.

Tags: open source, Linux, free software

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