An argument for free software

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Today, a lot of people are talking about free software -- open source -- things like Linux, Perl, Java, KDE, and so on.

Free software is good for the user. But how should it be viewed by commercial developers? Some people don't like the idea of free software; free implies cheap, and we all need to pay for our food and the roof over our heads.

I'm still trying to formulate my own position on this matter. After all, I'm a programmer. When I advocate the use of free software, am I not doing myself out of a living?

The answer, I think, is no. But the way I come to this conclusion is probably not immediately obvious.

Consider software, as a product. Software is readily copyable; if I have a computer I can duplicate the data on any medium it will read. Sometimes people attempt to copy-protect software by one means or another; but in general, all copy-protection mechanisms do is make it harder to copy software -- not impossible. After all, if you can't read it, you can't run it.) Thus, the marginal cost of duplicating software tends towards zero.

However, let's now consider a physical object. If I have an automobile, and I give it to you, I no longer have it; I've given it away. I can't easily duplicate it, so I've lost it. But if I have a program, I can give it to you, and still keep it for myself. Ergo, the traditional way of looking at property as a transferable but not retainable posession doesn't fit.

Copyright laws, as currently constituted around the world, presuppose a high fixed cost for copying, because back when they were first proposed the main infringers of intellectual property rights were rogue printers who plagiarized and republished books. It took a printing press to do this, so enforcing copyright control was fairly easy: you followed the trail of ink and confiscated their plates. Thus, copyright control was enforceable.

Now, with general-purpose computers, any machine capable of running the software is also capable of copying it. So the general assumption underlying existing copyright law (that copying takes special facilities) is invalidated.

A new way of allowing developers to earn a living therefore needs to be formalized; one which does't rely on obsolete assumptions ("copying is hard") and which accomodates a modern view of information as property ("the marginal cost of reproduction tends towards zero").

Free software fits the bill. It isn't necessarily free in a financial sense; just free in the sense that nobody wants to stop you copying it. Developers of free software can still make money by providing support services -- bugfixes, bespoke patches and configuration, end-user support, teaching, and documentation. These are services, not products. For an example of this way of life, look at Larry Wall, developer of Perl. Larry is now employed by O'Reilly and Associates to work on Perl, doing pretty much whatever he wants. ORA make money off this deal because they are the #1 publisher of Perl books, and having Larry in-house gives them a stupendous competitive edge in the Perl support market.

A useful side-effect of free software is that you don't need to waste resources on copy protection or licensing; every user is a potential customer for your support services, so you want to _encourage_ copying. Nor do you necessarily need to market free software. Free software is utterly decoupled from the marketing paradigm that has overtaken the software industry today, because a rational consumer -- faced with a choice between products that are essentially free -- will always pick the best product for their purposes. The usual marketing levers (advertising, featuritis, incompatability, FUD) are actually counterproductive if you try to apply them to free software; advertising usually relies on creating a sense of dissatisfaction or insecurity in the consumer, which requires compensatory fulfillment. But because the profitability of free software is predicated on services, not product, this doesn't raise revenue; it just puts new users off using your software in the first place.

Conversely, if you simply make your program the best possible one for the largest number of users, you will pick up market share. Thus, the free software market is innately technology-driven, not marketing- or sales- driven.

I believe there will always be a niche for developers writing custom applications for a specific customer. There will always be a niche for sysadmins and customization specialists, taking existing packages and configuring them for a specific customer. And there will always be a niche for the technical author, trainer, and troubleshooter, who helps the end-users understand and use the software more effectively. All these people have a vested interest in contributing (as and when they can) to the free software packages that make their jobs possible. They are, in economic terms, innately opposed to proprietary commercial applications packages that have been specified by marketing departments as an all-encompassing solution to all possible user's needs, because such packages make their jobs harder.

I'm a specialist Perl developer, working on bespoke applications for people who need them. Am I worse off because Perl is free, rather than costing me megabucks for a proprietary and non-portable development environment that then charges a runtime royalty? No. Indeed, free software saves me so much money that if I see a chance to contribute something useful to the common pot I will do so.

The free software economy is a gift economy, post-industrial style. The people who keep asking "yes, but why should I trust it?" are still stuck in the mass-production commodity sales era of Henry Ford. I'm convinced that this is the way of the future; after all, if and when nanotechnology comes along, everything will work the way the software industry works today. (Anyone want to help found a Free Hardware Foundation? :-)

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