Sunday, August 22, 2010

Does the free software movement represent "true freedom"?

Someone commented on a Youtube video that:
Actually, free software represents freedom. The Open Source Movement just supports the benefits of source code being available. The Free Software Foundation supports true freedom."

To which my response was:

It doesn't support the freedom to sell software though, does it?

Almost all of the software I use is open-source, and I've made (miniscule) contributions to open-source software in the past, but I don't think it's fair to demonise those who wish to make money from writing software by selling it.

Stallman seems to characterise closed-source as unethical, but is it really wrong for someone to release a program without the source code so that they can profit a bit from their work?

I'd be interested to hear any insight from others on this issue. Free software provides some freedom, but obviously removes the freedom to sell that software, even by the author. As a big fan and user of free software, but also a programmer and tradesman, I recognise that other people may want to do programming as a living by selling their work (rather than doing unenjoyable coding tasks for a large financial company they dislike, say).
I don't see anything wrong with that, unless there are superior models that allow them to still get paid reasonably well for their work as well as allowing them to release as open source. For example, many open source project pages have a donation link which allows happy users to send any amount of money to the developer if they wish, but I'd expect that this isn't a hugely profitable source of income compared to selling the software (which would kind of require it being closed source or at least with a horrible restricted semi-free license).



  1. Oisin,

    If you're referring to the GNU General Public License, there's no clause specifically restricting selling your software, so long as you distribute the source along with it - see

    I do think some of their suggestions are idealistic, but there's no perfect way to distribute software. Charge for it without source and people complain that you're just shoehorning a product with zero marginal cost into the mould of a product with non-zero marginal cost. Give it away for free and you'll end up homeless :(

  2. Hey Eric!

    Ok, but the technical requirement to distribute the source means while you can sell your software, almost nobody would buy it since the source has been made available already and they can acquire it for free. It's hard for me to see how one could make a living from open-source software.

    So you're right, there is no perfect way to distribute software - at least none that will make everyone happy.

    I just wish some of the more fervent supporters of the free software movement weren't so anti-non-free software. While I try to use free software as much as possible (because it's a superior option in so many respects), it saddens me to see programmers demonised for releasing proprietary software.

    Just because we want it for free doesn't mean that the developers are unethical to sell it as closed source. That's what pissed me off about Stallman - an extreme and very judgemental black and white view. :/