Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism: Page 3

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Such an argument is more than mildly ironic, considering that some community members still regard open source businesses as free-riders because they profit from the volunteer efforts of others.

Nor do Asay's assumptions stand up under scrutiny. Companies may be an important part of the free software ecosystem these days, but they hardly fill every available niche. Unpaid volunteers still swell the ranks of many free software projects, and only a handful of projects are dominated by a single company, so the ideas that code must be paid for and that all free software development is commercial seem myopic at best.

In fact, I would question the whole idea of free-riders. Traditionally, free software developers do not work to benefit others. Instead, they work to provide the tools they want. Admittedly, those paid to work on free software may not always be doing work they want, but the same remains true on a corporate scale -- by adding features to free software, a company gets its return in a product that is more attractive to customers. It also gets good will advertising by proving itself a good member of the community.

More importantly, the point of free licenses is to remove the restrictions on users as far as possible. If you start trying to differentiate between users on the basis of how much they pay back to you, then you are undermining the whole idea of free software in the first place. It is only from a traditional business perspective that such differentiation seems desirable, or even possible. If you truly understand free software, then you have to realize that an inability to control your code is part of the price of doing business.

Conclusion

Over the last few years, the relation between business and free software has become clearly defined. Successful collaborations between the two have been marked by companies learning new business models and new relations to customers and competitors under the influence of free software. But what these events have in common is an apparent underlying desire to see free software adapt to business -- and that's something that can't be done without free software ceasing to exist.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the purpose of business is profit. Companies like Red Hat have shown that free software can be a means to profit, although perhaps a reduced profit compared to what a proprietary company might realize with the same software.

But ultimately, free software isn't about profit. In the short term, it's about making quality the first priority. In the long term, it's about philosophy and political activism. These values cannot be compromised very far before they cease to exist.

That's why these separate stories, in which placing business imperatives ahead of free software's values, are reason for concern. Together they suggest a trend that's highly disturbing for those of us who see free software as a transformative force.


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Tags: open source, Linux, Windows, Microsoft, developers


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