Who's Funding Free Software?

by chromatic

Where would you be if Free Software went away tomorrow? Personally, I'd be sunk -- my daily toolkit includes bash, vim, ssh, Mozilla, AbiWord, OpenOffice.org, and Perl. That doesn't mention the countless underlying tools and libraries that come into play. Without Perl, this publishing system would be gone. Without bind or sendmail or Apache, the Internet would barely exist. Without Linux or BSD (and I apologize for apparently conflating the BSDs with "Free Software", but I'm on a rhetorical roll here, so please bear with me), we'd have no inexpensive community websites, no roll-your-own weblogs. Without MySQL and PostgreSQL and the other free databases, we'd have flat files and....

Without languages like Perl and PHP and Python and Ruby, I'd have very little to write about. Without gcc, even C and C++ would be tricky. Would anyone outside Sun still care about Java if it weren't for the Blackdown guys, or Jakarta, or all of the tools they produce?

Without all of this wonderful software, we'd plunge back into the Dark Ages. (It's tempting to say that the barbarians who sacked Rome represent proprietary software, but that leaves the unenviable metaphor of saying that unchecked expansion left the hackers soft around the edges, and no one wants that!)

Think of the effect on your business now. Maybe you only have one Linux box in the corner serving files, or maybe you've taken the plunge and have a beefy Linux Terminal Server in a closet and run everything on thin clients. Maybe you don't have any free or open source software anywhere -- even if that's the case, you've likely benefitted from the cost pressures that high-quality redistributable software has applied to proprietary vendors. (If you'd previously used OpenView or CDE and now have an X desktop that doesn't hurt your eyes, you've benefitted doubly.) Where would your business be without this software?

Don't worry. It's not going away.

That's not to say things are peachy keen, though. I'm going to discuss the Perl community briefly, because that's the community I know best. These ideas apply much more broadly, though.

Things are tough. Lots of good, smart, hard-working people are unemployed or underemployed. (Writing a book is a big job -- and several good people are working on books, but it can be tough to pay the bills while writing full-time.) That includes some of the tip-top names in the Perl world.

Face it -- if money were no object, wouldn't you hire a Michael Schwern to write tests, a Damian Conway to give training, and a Larry Wall to do research?

If you or your company benefit from Free Software, here's a list of ways you can help ensure the future of Free Software. Focus less on the "free" part and more on the "enlightened self interest" part:

  • Donate money to the project of your choice.

  • Sponsor a hacker to add a feature or fix a bug.

  • Hire a hacker to train your employees.

  • Donate code.

  • Report a bug.

  • Answer a question on a mailing list.

  • Encourage your employees to contribute to a project of their choice.

  • Replace a proprietary tool with a free one.

  • List the free software you use on your website.

  • List the free software you use in a press release.

  • Host a user group meeting.

  • Donate 10% of the money you've saved by using free software to the projects that have saved you money.

  • Write a thank you note to a project that's saved you time.

There are a lot of companies who've done one or all of these things, and there are a lot more ideas waiting to be discovered. (I'm pretty proud to say that my employer scores very well, and that I've done a fair few of these things myself.) To everyone who's done at least one of these ideas, congratulations. You've helped ensure that Free Software keeps going.

To everyone else, if you've benefitted from Free Software, what are you waiting for?

What other ideas are there? Let me know!


2003-02-21 12:09:13
Business models are important
Open source will continue to have the problems you point out until the right business models are in place to ensure that developers don't have to rely on people doing "the right thing".

Eric Raymond's paper The Magic Cauldron provides some good ideas, but clearly more thought is needed in this area. RealNetworks' Helix Community, Trolltech's Qt, and MySQL are all examples of cases where businesses are working out how to both ensure that the open source community benefits from having source code, and that the programmers continue to have a full-time job working on the code.

In short, I don't want to detract from the point that people should contribute to open source projects. However, I think the community should look long and hard at how to align economic motivations with moving the community forward. It's a hard, but not impossible problem.

Rob Lanphier
Helix Community Coordinator

2003-02-23 07:04:19
open source your work
The primary audience of this site is developers, many of whom are open source. A lot of them already do some of these things, and it's probable that many of the don't have disposable income to contribute. There is something programmers can do more of to help, though: free their code and support it publicly.

With most volunteer initiatives, success is more a matter of people's time than money. The seed funding for open source development projects almost always comes from the individual developers who start them. Many software projects aren't really that expensive if you don't have to pay the developers (or buy proprietary products). Hardware and bandwidth are cheap.

I think more contributions need to come from the public sector and corporations. As Eric Raymond points out, most software written today is developed in-house, and so isn't seen by anyone but the organization that wrote it. What a waste. The powers that be may cite plenty of reasons for not allowing this to happen (security seems to be the most popular excuse for executive irresponsibility in this age), but the root of their reluctance is undoubtedly the standard human greed and selfishness.

I convinced an employer to allow me to release production software that I developed for them as an open source project. This can be considerably difficult, especially since it hinges on management's perception of the integrity and skills of the developer. These are the arguments I made...

At no new financial cost, your organization can gain:
- improved software quality
- additional functionality
- a long-term maintenance strategy
through an act of goodwill.

Then I gave them some unbilled time in trade.

Don't be fooled: the hardest part was yet to come... I can't say I've been given much support in my own efforts so far and it has been heartbreakingly difficult already, but I'm ambitious and will persevere. Starting an open source project requires me to be patient, attentive to any and all users, open to criticism, and more hard-working than any previous employer has demanded. In spite of it all, I highly recommend taking the blue pill yourself: it's a meaningful act in a world filled with emptiness.

2003-02-26 02:36:16
Overall a good article, and I'd like to see more like this. I do have to comment, however, about the quote, "I apologize for apparently conflating the BSDs with 'Free Software'". The BSDs are most definitely Free Software; many BSD advocates would argue that they're more free than anything released under the GPL (though that's a debate I'd prefer not to re-open). BSD predates the term "Open Source" by nearly two decades, and has offered high-quality, reliable free code used by business (e.g. Sun, AT&T, Microsoft, etc.) since long before any of this became a political/religious issue.

RMS and the Free Software Foundation say that Linux and BSD are both Free Software. ESR and the Open Source Initiative say that Linux and BSD are both Open Source. If anyone disagrees, it's the old-school BSDers who argue that Linux is NOT truly Free Software, but BSD most definitely is. What's to "conflate"? At least as far as BSD is concerned? It seems to be the one thing that everyone agrees is indisputably Free Software.

2003-02-26 05:36:35
Charity or Not-for-profit?
I agree with the author of the need for solid business models for the long term viability of open source software.

It struck me as strange that many of the bullet points are the same things that a charity, not-for-profit alliance, or a jobs program for the less fortunate would also list as important.

The answer to the question of "Who's funding free software?" is simple. It's mostly people who are already working in IT getting paid to support and develop on UNIX, Windows, and other OS systems as well as hobbyists.

I like the definition of free software as in "freedom to use as one pleases" because open source software is anything but free.

2003-02-26 07:38:52
Dislike of definition and dislike of term
With more and more definitions, issues become more and more confused. Open Source is still not understood for its issues by many. Add to that the plethora of licensing schemes which are largly political when chosen by some.

Open Source is not to say that EVERYONE can do as he pleases. That has never been the case. With the adoption of free software you beget abominations that are not free and corrupt standards set in the original software (eg Kerberos).

Conclusion; use terms as they are and accept what you are given in the spirit that it is given in.

2003-02-26 09:12:50
the best way to support free software
is to use it. Use it to solve serious problems for someone else. Someone who pays you to do so.

I am an electrical engineer. My employer pays me to keep their satellite network working. I didn't have to twist anyone's arm to allow me to use linux at work, or argue against Windows. I just started solving serious problems for them using linux. Any they didn't care that I was using linux. They only cared that I was solving their problems for them.

Don't feel guilty for using open source code and not writing much to speak of, or if you have never spent any money on open source code (say you download slackware instead of shelling out $40 for the CDs). Feel guilty if you passed up an opprotunity for someone to pay you to solve their problems using open source code.

Chris Marshall

2003-02-26 13:31:44
Free Software
With freedom comes responsibility, as any State Trooper in the U.S. will tell a drunk driver - there is a difference between free beer and free speech.

Certainly, much Free Software in use does not request funding, but that does not mean that it can't be paid for by donation, or advertisement, or any of the other things that are mentioned in this (superb) article.

If you use a Free Software application - and are happy with it - send what you think is worth to the developer(s). It can be a dollar, or it can be 100 dollars.

Share. That's what the spirit the software was usually written in, and some person who loves what they do created something you consider worthwhile.

On the flip side, I think developers should give a graphic or something to display for people who donate to their application. Something like "We help fund xyz!".


2003-02-26 14:41:23
The motivations are different for releasing software under the GPL and a BSD license. I wrote that line in an attempt to recognize those differences. The word "free" didn't really work for the title and "Free" has GPL-connotations that didn't apply to all of the software mentioned.

Perhaps the distinction is too subtle.

2003-02-26 16:19:11
confused about the definition of "free"
From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary:

1. Exempt from subjection to the will of others; not under restraint, control, or compulsion; able to follow one's own impulses, desires, or inclinations; determining one's own course of action; not dependent; at liberty.

Just one part of many. By stating that the BSD's are not "free", you are only confusing people. Unless your intent is to push only the GNU/GPL agenda, who give the word "free" a new and incompatible definition. The BSD's are certainly free software; please do not confuse the issue.

2003-02-26 16:42:37
Please Read More Closely
You are right; claiming that the BSDs are not free would confuse people.

I have made no such claim.

2003-02-26 17:22:49
Indeed. The terms "open" and "free" are hyped so much and used in questionable manners that many people -- myself included -- have tuned the nuances out.

I think that the objections to the "conflating" sentence stem from singling BSD out (my attention was called to your article by a message sent to FreeBSD advocacy entitled, "O'Reilly apologises for calling BSD 'Free Software'" -- I won't bother delving into the inaccuracies there). There are other projects in your article (e.g., Python, Perl, Postgres) which would be in the same category. So the red flags go up... "This buckaroo doesn't think BSD is up to snuff!"

Free is tied to the GPL in the same way as Xerox is tied to photocopiers: it's inappropriate to reserve it for FSF-issued software, but that's what many people think of when they hear it, so...

2003-02-26 18:28:39
That Makes it Clearer

Thanks for replying. I can definitely see how singling BSD out could confuse things. It might have been better to say "... conflating all of these projects under the GNU-ish umbrella of the term 'Free Software'...".

The verbiage in this area is pretty muddled.

2003-02-26 21:27:11
why pay? Quit whining.
So what they do it out of love or enjoyment of programming. Why do they need to get paid. What is up with the book deal. Right now their are several bloggers writing .net books and I don't see them starving. Maybe you just picked something there is no money in. Quit your whining.
2003-02-26 22:23:15
conflation and free software
I recently had a conversation with RMS that cleared things up substantially for me. He differentiated the Free Software ideology as being different from the "list" of Free Software (licenses).

So that to him BSD was Free Software in that it appears on the FSF list of Free Software licenses, but it was not Free Software in the ideological sense. I pointed out that the distinction was non-obvious and confusing. I don't know if that made an impression or not ;-)


2003-05-22 09:08:08
Free Software V/s Open source
Iam a developer and i dont like the concept of free software. To me it is identical to demeaning my own effort. I have also seen too many developers posting their badly designed, bug ridden code on the net for free. Most of them dont have any documentation interms of design of the software, organization of the code etc. so that others can modify the code to serve them better.