Is It Wrong to Make a Profit From FOSS?

There’s just never a dull moment here in the Linux blogosphere, whether there’s big news being made at the moment or not.

Some weeks, we have wild activity surrounding the latest moves from Canonical, for example, or perhaps Adobe’s latest affront; such happenings are virtually guaranteed to generate some lively conversation.

Even in other weeks, though, where the news days might seem slower, there’s never a shortage of things to talk about.

Case in point? Just last Monday, when all the Linux world was still waking up from the weekend, a lone voice rang out with the question, “is open source anti-profit?”

A hush quickly fell over the Linux blogosphere as FOSS fans far and wide pondered the implications.

‘Some Think It Is Immoral’

It was ITworld’s Brian Proffitt who gave voice to the troubling question after reading a recent interview with Eucalyptus CEO Marten Mickos by New York Times blogger Quentin Hardy.

“Some people in open source think it is immoral to make a profit. I don’t,'” Mickos said.

“I do not think that this opinion is held by the majority (or even plurality) of the FLOSS community,” Proffitt asserted. “I will lay this out, but I will also most definitely invite commentary.”

‘It’s Not Wrong’

Ask for commentary here in the Linux blogosphere, and you’ll most surely get it. A week or so later, in fact, the din still hasn’t died down.

Is it wrong to profit from FOSS?

Down at the blogosphere’s Google+ Grill — Linux Girl’s new favorite haunt — she picked up her Quick Quotes Quill and started taking down some of what was said.

“No, I believe it’s not” wrong to profit from FOSS, Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol opined.

“But to profit a lot from Open Source, while projects die for lack of resources, this is immoral, by my book,” Ebersol added. “So, if Open Source is being good to you, be good to Open Source too, IMHO.”

Indeed, “Red Hat exemplifies how a ‘successful’ open source company operates in a non-exploitive fashion,” noted Dietrich Schmitz.

Profitability = Continuity?

“Hmmm…I love eBooks,” began Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien. “I love audiobooks. I love music. I will look for files I can legally purchase that are unencumbered by DRM.

“I would hope that the people who sell them to me are making a profit, because if they are they will continue to sell them to me,” O’Brien added. “Would something similar apply in the software world? I suspect it might.”

Similarly, “no one objects to people or businesses making a profit using FLOSS,” blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl.

‘Money Is Not the Root of All Evil’

“One of the four freedoms is to run the software,” Pogson explained. “Where it gets tricky is selling licenses. Since FLOSS may legally be copied, that does not work. Selling services does work, very well.”

Google and Red Hat have both “done very well giving software away while charging for some associated service,” he pointed out. “That’s a good model for everyone because it allows sharing and people doing what they enjoy and are good at doing.”

On the other hand, “look at the bizarre restrictions M$ has to place on its software in order to make a living,” Pogson noted. “Money is not the root of all evil — love of money is. If you love money enough to abuse everyone around you to get it, you will die alone and miserable.”

‘I’m Happy to Pay for TLC’

Slashdot blogger yagu took a similar view.

“I’ve never had an issue with people profiting from Open Source,” yagu told Linux Girl. “In fact, I can think of no business model that makes any sense without profits.”

Besides, “starting with ‘free’ software doesn’t guarantee profitability — free is misleading,” yagu pointed out. “Profits come from good products, and while there are plenty of good OSS applications, good isn’t enough.

“I’m all for someone turning an OSS application into a product, aka, software with great service!” he added. “I’m happy to pay for TLC and see OSS members make money.”

‘Bad Actors on Both Sides’

Part of the issue is that “there are bad actors on both sides: pedantics from OSS who scream at any hint of business and profits, and poseurs from business who violate GPL while walking away with bunches of unearned cash,” yagu suggested. “Remove these groups, and the landscape looks more familiar, people creating products and services at fair market values for people willing to pay for a product.”

That, in turn, “is a good thing, IMO,” he concluded. “Not saying there shouldn’t be due diligence in tracking down those who take advantage of OSS — just that there shouldn’t be anything stopping good faith business from making their living too, even with OSS.”

There’s nothing wrong with making a profit from open source, agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

‘I Have Never Encountered Hostility’

“I have been in business for 8 years and have never encountered hostility due to the fact I make money off open source software,” Travers told Linux Girl.

“Certainly there is some hostility (including from me) towards making money selling software licenses, but even that has been largely normalized by the single-vendor solutions folks,” he explained. “There is also hostility towards interfering with other people making a profit (by trying to get a legal stranglehold on aftermarket documentation or the like).”

Still, “those aren’t the same things as hostility towards making a profit,” he concluded. “Rather, they represent pervasive hostility in the open source community towards certain ways in which one can make a profit.”

‘The Busted Toilet Problem’

Without a way for people to actually make money off their work, “what you get frankly is what we have now with Linux on the desktop: junk,” opined Slashdot blogger hairyfeet.

That’s because of what hairyfeet calls the “busted toilet” problem: “Sure you might write a song or come up with a cool gadget for the betterment of all, but would you get on your hands and knees and clean and fix that disgusting overflowing toilet down the hall for absolutely nothing?

“Of course not — it’s disgusting!” he added. “And THAT is why the whole ‘Never make money, GPL has to be free as in beer’ BS simply doesn’t work, because for every job that is fun and exciting you have a dozen jobs like the guy that has to clean the puke off the floor at the Chuck E Cheese.”

Microsoft and Apple both “literally have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for those busted toilet jobs with THEIR OSes,” he pointed out.

‘The Hard Work License’

Instead, a new license is needed, hairyfeet suggested — “one that will allow companies like Canonical to actually survive fixing the busted toilets while still keeping ‘free as in freedom.’ Let’s call it the ‘hard work’ license, since I think most of us would agree if we do a bunch of hard work we deserve to be paid.”

Among the stipulations of such a license would be the following: “1. You are free to look at the code; 2. You are free to modify it for personal use; 3. If you want to distribute it YOU MUST PAY for the code,” hairyfeet explained.

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, had a different perspective.

‘You Don’t Need Software to Live’

“Unless you have a pacemaker or some other device with a chip in it keeping you alive, you don’t need software to live,” Hudson began. “You do need food, shelter, and clothing. Nobody has an issue with anyone making a profit selling you these necessities of life, but somehow, software is different. ‘Information wants to be free!'”

It seems that “there are only three options that work over the long term — using FOSS as the basis for Software-as-a-Service, using restrictive vendor-specific support agreements, or hiding FOSS inside closed hardware,” Hudson explained.”Consider the three examples in the article,” she went on. “Red Hat doesn’t make their money selling FOSS, and your Red Hat support subscription limits how you use the software. Suse is on life support — again — being bailed out — again — by another $100 million, 4-year ‘Linux certificates deal’ by Microsoft — again. Canonical? Unprofitable — again.”

‘Nothing Left to Lose’

Ultimately, “FOSS is not immune to the law of unforeseen consequences,” she added. “Given the impossibility of making money from FOSS software sales, businesses have turned elsewhere, and the revenue generator of choice is invasive, pervasive advertising.”

To wit: “It’s sad that FOSS is both the driver and the enabler of the on-line cyber-stalking that Google and Facebook are so dependent on,” Hudson pointed out. “These FOSS-based companies only want your information to be ‘free.’ When they’re done analyzing you five ways from Sunday, ‘free’ really will be just another word for ‘nothing left to lose.’

“That’s the real moral question that needs to be addressed,” she concluded. “Anything else is just hand-waving.”

The Great ‘Vacation’ Experiment

Speaking of hand-waving, dear readers, it’s with considerable trepidation that Linux Girl must inform you that her Tux cape will be spending the next week in the closet while she tries out an unfamiliar concept known as the “vacation.”

Assuming she lives to tell the tale, look for her next Linux Blog Safari column on March 29. Until then! 😉

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


    • That was the Xandros model in a nutshell, they had both a free home version and a low cost home version and the business desktop was $99 and the server was $499 IIRC. While the website is still up the OS itself hasn’t been updated since 2009 so i’d say its another piece of roadkill on the Linux highway.

      Ultimately it comes down to busted toilets folks, because its not the GUI that keeps users away from Linux, its the busted toilets. the flaky sound issues, the lousy drivers, things breaking on upgrade, badly written docs, inconsistent UI conventions, these are all boring, long, slow, thankless lousy jobs that NOBODY is gonna dedicate years of their life to do for free, they just won’t.

      In the end you have to allow companies to make money as you need someone to pay for the busted toilets to get fixed. the ONLY reason you have all this code is because humans love to create, its human nature. what humans do NOT love to do is fix nasty messes, especially other people’s messes. All you get in the GPL model is new bugs and beta software because the incentive to fix it just isn’t there, no money no fixee. The reason GPL works in servers is because corporations make money off the servers and so are willing to pay to fix it…well that and your competition charges insane prices for licenses for its server products so putting up with some busted toilets are easier when the choice is busted toilet or paying tens of thousands of dollars annually.

      C’mon community, you are better than this, surely you can come up with a license that lets companies like canonical stay afloat fixing toilets while still being free to examine the code. time is nearly up, win 8 will most likely get Ballmer fired and the next CEO won’t be as stupid. Either play to win or get off the field and right now you aren’t playing to win, you’re practically lying down on the field.

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