Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software
Making Free Software Work for Everybody
Another week and another perfect storm of articles and opinions. This time, we start with Jonas Öberg’s “How Free Software is Failing the Users“, where he notes that users don’t always get the opportunity to exercise their rights to improve Free Software. I agree with many of the things Jonas says, but he omits an important factor that is perhaps worth thinking about when reading some of the other articles. Maybe he will return to it in a later article, but I will discuss it here.
Let us consider the other articles. Alanna Irving of Open Collective wrote an interview with Jason Miller about project “maintainer burnout” entitled “Preact: Shattering the Perception that Open Source Must be Free“. It’s worth noting here that Open Collective appears to be a venture capital funded platform with similar goals to the more community-led Gratipay and Liberapay, which are funding platforms that enable people to get others to fund them to do ongoing work. Nolan Lawson of Microsoft describes the demands of volunteer-driven “open source” in “What it feels like to be an open-source maintainer“. In “Life of free software project“, Michal Čihař writes about his own experiences maintaining projects and trying to attract contributions and funding.
When reading about “open source”, one encounters some common themes over and over again: that Free Software (which is almost always referenced as “open source” when these themes are raised) must be free as in cost, and that people volunteer to work on such software in their own time or without any financial reward, often for fun or for the technical challenge. Of course, Free Software has never been about the cost. It probably doesn’t help that the word “free” can communicate the meaning of zero cost, but “free as in freedom” usually gets articulated very early on in any explanation of the concept of Free Software to newcomers.
Even “open source” isn’t about the cost, either. But the “open source” movement started out by differentiating itself from the Free Software movement by advocating the efficiency of producing Free Software instead of emphasising the matter of personal control over such software and the freedom it gives the users of such software. Indeed, the Open Source Initiative tells us this in its mission description:
Open source enables a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is higher quality, better reliability, greater flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.
It makes Free Software – well, “open source” – sound like a great way of realising business efficiencies rather than being an ethical choice. And with this comes the notion that when it comes to developing software, a brigade of pixies on the Internet will happily work hard to deliver a quality product that can be acquired for free, thus saving businesses money on software licence and development costs.
Thus, everybody now has to work against this perception of no-cost, made-by-magic Free Software. Jonas writes, “I know how to bake bread, but oftentimes I choose to buy bread instead.” Unfortunately, thanks to the idea that the pixies will always be on hand to fix our computers or to make new things, we now have the equivalent of bakers being asked to bake bread for nothing. (Let us ignore the specifics of the analogy here: in some markets it isn’t exactly lucrative to run a bakery, either.)
Jason Miller makes some reasonable observations as he tries to “shatter” this perception. Sadly, as it seems to be with all these funding platforms, there is some way to go. With perhaps one or two exceptions, even the most generously supported projects appear to be drawing a fraction of a single salary as donations or contributions, and it would seem that things like meet-ups and hackerspaces attract funding more readily. I guess that when there are tangible expenses – rental costs, consumables, power and network bills – people are happy to pay such externally-imposed costs. When it comes to valuing the work done by someone, even if one can quote “market rates” and document that person’s hours, everyone can argue about whether it was “really worth that amount”.
Michal Čihař notes…
But the most important thing is to persuade people and companies to give back. You know there are lot of companies relying on your project, but how to make them fund the project? I really don’t know, I still struggle with this as I don’t want to be too pushy in asking for money, but I’d really like to see them to give back.
Sadly, we live in an age of free stuff. If it looks like a project is stalling because of a lack of investment, many people and businesses will look elsewhere instead of stepping up and contributing. Indeed, this is when you see those people and businesses approaching the developers of other projects, telling those developers that they really want to use their project but it perhaps isn’t yet “good enough” for “the enterprise” or for “professional use” and maybe if it only did this and this, then they would use it, and wouldn’t that give it the credibility it clearly didn’t have before? (Even if there are lots of satisfied existing users and that this supposed absence of credibility purely exists in the minds of those shopping around for something else to use.) Oh, and crucially, how about doing the work to make it “good enough” for us for nothing? Thank you very much.
It is in this way that independent Free Software projects are kept marginalised, remaining viable enough to survive (mostly thanks to volunteer effort) but weakened by being continually discarded in favour of something else as soon as a better “deal” can be made and another group of pixies exploited. Such projects are thereby ill-equipped to deal with aggressive proprietary competitors. When fancy features are paraded by proprietary software vendors in front of decision-makers in organisations that should be choosing Free Software, advocates of free and open solutions may struggle to persuade those decision-makers that Free Software solutions can step in and do what they need.
Playing projects against each other to see which pixies will work the hardest, making developers indulge in competitions to see who can license their code the most permissively (to “reach more people”, you understand), portraying Free Software development as some kind of way of showcasing developers’ skills to potential employers (while really just making them unpaid interns on an indefinite basis) are all examples of the opportunistic underinvestment in Free Software which ultimately just creates opportunities for proprietary software. And it also goes a long way to undermining the viability of the profession in an era when we apparently don’t have enough programmers.
So that was a long rant about the plight of developers, but what does this have to do with the users? Well, first of all, users need to realise that the things they use do not cost nothing to make. Of course, in this age of free stuff (as in stuff that costs no money), they can decide that some program or service just doesn’t “do it for them” any more and switch to a shinier, better thing, but that isn’t made of pixie dust either. All of the free stuff has other hidden costs in terms of diminished privacy, increased surveillance and tracking, dubious data security, possible misuse of their property, and the discovery that certain things that they appear to own weren’t really their property all along.
Users do need to be able to engage with Free Software projects within the conventions of those projects, of course. But they also need the option of saying, “I think this could be better in this regard, but I am not the one to improve it.” And that may need the accompanying option: “Here is some money to pay someone to do it.” Free Software was always about giving control to the users but not necessarily demanding that the users become developers (or even technical writers, designers, artists, and so on). A user benefits from their office suite or drawing application being Free Software not only in situations where the user has the technical knowledge to apply it to the software, but they also benefit when they can hand the software to someone else and get them to fix or improve it instead. And, yes, that may well involve money changing hands.
Those of us who talk about Free Software and not “open source” don’t need reminding that it is about freedom and not about things being free of charge. But the users, whether they are individuals or organisations, end-users or other developers, may need reminding that you never really get something for nothing, especially when that particular something is actually a rather expensive thing to produce. Giving them the opportunity to cover some of that expense, and not just at “tip jar” levels, might actually help make Free Software work, not just for users, not just for developers, but as a consequence of empowering both groups, for everybody.