Free-loading Adoption of F/OSS

by chromatic

Matt Asay kicked up a small controversy in MySQL adoption: Deep and wide when he wrote:

Now the only thing missing in that conversation is the enterprise stepping up to pay for some or all of its free-loading adoption of MySQL. This is what is prompting MySQL to consider new licensing models. It would be very easily resolved by enterprises for owning up to and paying for the value they derive from open source, very little of which comes down to a lower price tag.

I'd like to extend that to projects beyond MySQL and to a definition of "contribution" far beyond opening a checkbook. Here's my thesis: if your organization derives some benefit from a community-driven software project, you have a moral obligation to contribute to the health of that community in some way.

I'll write more about this tomorrow.


Jason Antman
2008-04-22 10:25:58
Matt Asay
2008-04-22 10:42:11
Agreed. Keep in mind that in other posts I've mentioned that this "payment" comes in the form of cash or code. In the case of the Web 2.0 companies, however, it generally takes the form of neither. They use the code and contribute back sparingly, or selectively, if at all. That's not the bargain of open source. The bargain is that if you use and distribute, you contribute back (or buy your way out of that if you must).

Because most OSI-approved licenses don't account for distribution across a network, an increasingly large body of "software vendors" are getting away with using open source heavily without contributing back. I'd like to see that changed.

Dave Woldrich
2008-04-22 11:52:16
Hmmm, I disagree. While licensing terms of basically all software, both free and commercial, make no guarantees of quality or fitness, the social contracts differ widely from f/oss and commercial software.

Commercial software vendors are bound to provide paid support and enhancement requests to their customers. Open source vendors have no such contract - they can take their products in any direction they want, drop them with no notice, etc.

There is no real pressure on open source vendors to produce or not to produce except for internal pressures. This absence of pressure is the key reason why f/oss enterprise users shouldn't be expected to pay. The absence of pressure benefits the f/oss developer with being able to operate at their own pace and develop the project as they see fit. This hurts most consumers because they are just along for the ride and lack any real hammer with which to can whack the developer with. Those consumers that contribute to the project with their own code reclaim their destiny wrt the f/oss in part, and I see this contribution as a form of payment.

I think hybrid paid commercial/support/consulting and free/open source organizations can work. I think they have to be careful to not make restrictive free licenses or to neuter the free version or else they risk having the free side of the house wither.


2008-04-22 12:52:19
@Dave, I agree with much of what you wrote, but I tried to expand the talk away from vendors to communities. This may be more obvious in tomorrow's posting. In the case where there's no obvious single vendor, or no official vendor, or even no vendor at all, sustainability may be a big problem.
Dave Woldrich
2008-04-22 15:25:25
I'll check out your post tomorrow, but I don't see the difference between an organization contributing money or man hours to keep these open source projects healthy. Both are a spend.

I think it is useful and cheap for an organization to help promote an open source project. I wonder if I would have ever considered using qmail if I hadn't heard about it from engineers at Yahoo, for instance. So, that is a useful way for an organization to improve the morale and visibility of an open source community.

I see nothing immoral about an organization taking open source and using it and contributing nothing back. In many cases, open source is a starting point, not a destination. The organization chooses to take on the maintenance of a body of work not created by them, and there's a cost there. Maybe that cost is mitigated by the fact that commercial software need not be purchased, but maybe not!

For me personally, what little open source I've done was more about sharing my implementation ideas and learning how I can personally get better at releasing software, not about profit. My userbase was very small, but for what there was, I know the leeching was rampant. There was almost no reciprocation even though I was licensing the code under the GPL. I think there's an nuttiness with free software business models that want to profit purely from thank you gifts from others.

2008-04-24 23:02:57
I agree absolutely. I work for a company that frankly would not exist in its present form had we not in our early days "stood on the shoulders of giants" of the F/OSS world. MySQL is a core example. How do we at least acknowledge that debt? In the case of MySQL we elect to purchase support licenses that we do not use. It's a pittance in comparison to the actual monetary value derived from the software. Thanks MySQL!