Open Source is Not Slavery
Last updated: 8/2/2002; 1:59:51 PM
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Open Source is Not Slavery

Open Source is NOT Slavery

There are times when someone makes a comment that you find so wrong, so inaccurate that you don’t even know where to begin.  For me, this week, this was the comment (from

OSCON_, last week, has done its job and stirred the embers of the Great Open Source Debate of the 1990s. I found myself writing in an email yesterday: “Very little really usable software has come from people who are willing to work for $0. (I chose my words carefully, infrastructure is another matter entirely.) Further, it’s weird to say, as Richard Stallman does, that by coercing programmers to work for $0 that that’s freedom. To me it seems obvious that that’s slavery.”   _

NOTE: I’m not going to address the issue of usable software that Dave mentions.  Certainly there are some highly usable Open Source products but usability is an issue for our community.

As someone who spend 1987 to 1999 happily selling commercial, proprietary software and who now characterizes himself as an Open Source advocate, all I can say is You’re Wrong at least in my humble opinion.  Let’s take a look at the issues:

  1. Starting with the term “Coercion” which you say Richard Stallman does.  According to, coerce means:

  2. To force to act or think in a certain way by use of pressure, threats, or intimidation; compel.
  3. To dominate, restrain, or control forcibly: coerced the strikers into compliance. See Synonyms at force.
  4. To bring about by force or threat: efforts to coerce agreement.

Well.  I don’t see anyone with a gun to an open source programmer’s head.  I don’t see anyone forcing me to do anything.  And, while I may not always agree with Stallman, he doesn’t do this.  What Stallman has done is written a EULA (end user license agreement) called the GPL that say that if you release your software this way then there are certain restrictions.  This is no different from Radio or Frontier having a EULA.  And if you can can do it, so can he.  You get paid in cash, he gets paid differently – by seeing people use his belief system.

  1. The GPL is only one form of Open Source EULA.  Others require more (affero) and significantly less (BSD / Perl Artistic License).  When ever a programmer creates a piece of software that he or she chooses to make available via open source, they make a choice as to what license model is used.  Try signing up a project at Source Forge which not only requires you to pick a license but also explains them to you — but doesn’t force you to use the GPL.
  2. I choose to write Open Source software.  Period the end.  It’s a choice and I am doing it for many different reasons. Among those reasons are:
    • Personal.  I get a high degree of satisfaction from knowing that something I created is in use on many desktops (or I will when my next thing is released).  How is this any different from creating a fantastic book on Python and giving it away.  Is he a slave?  
    • Business.  Open Source products can reach a level of scale in a matter of months that commercial products NEVER realize.  The examples abound – Jabber, Apache, QMail, Gimp, etc.  And, wherever users congregate en masse, there is an opportunity to make money.  That’s NOT slavery at all.  Sure we may not be selling software; maybe it’s support or hosting or consulting but we are making money.  If you doubt that then look at Jesse and Douglas O’Flaherty of which are realizing revenues greater than $100,000 from an outstandingly good Open Source application – the RT trouble ticketing application.
    • Practical.  I’m a technical guy — and I’m unbelievably practical.  I’ve had engineering teams reporting to me as large as 45 people.  We’ve used real tools, real methodologies and had good people.  And, you know what?  When an Open Source project is well run (Apache, Linux, Drupal, Perl, PHP), the engineering is simply better done than it is in commercial products.  Using Open Source as your development methodology (actually a part of it) helps you build higher quality products – and significantly more quickly.  That’s practical.
    • It’s the Best Thing for the Customer.  I’m a firm believer that in the long run, the only businesses that survive are those that are fanatically customer focused – and do the right thing for the customer.  Open Source is significantly better for the customer in these two ways:
    • Your Data Isn’t In a Data Jail.  I use a computer 16 to 20 hours per day (no, I don’t sleep much or do much besides work lately; different story).  My data is important to me.  I don’t want it locked up by a vendor in a proprietary format.  With an Open Source product, even if you can’t technically handle the data migration task, you can find someone who can.  My first company spent 9 years writing filters for word processing formats.  If MS Word was open source then this would have been dramatically easier.  Instead Microsoft owns my data.  As does Radio.  I find that unacceptable and more and more customers find that unacceptable.
    • Quality Matters.  Right now computers and data are more important than ever before.  If Open Source produces better quality then Open Source is what’s best for the customer.  And while I will be the first person to admit that some open source is of dubious quality, so are commercial products.  Bear in mind that now my computer is my telephone, my book, my note pad and my music.  Poor quality is utterly unacceptable.  This brings us to the next point. - The Commercial Software Industry’s Definition of Quality Sucks.  I’m tired of poor quality software (want to know why I didn’t blog yesterday – crashes in Radio).  The main reason that the software industry produces buggy products is very simple – we do it because we can get away with it.  For years this business has just grown at a 25%+ rate.  Growth hides customer discontent very, very well.  Well in the Open Source world there’s a statement “Enough eyes make all bugs shallow” (not an exact quote).  This is very, very true.  And, by releasing products that I create as Open Source, I am doing my little, teeny, tiny bit towards making software quality better.  And every other good project out there does the same. - Business Models Change.    To draw an analogy from the MP3 world, there’s a huge issue right now with lots and lots of techies saying “The music industry needs to change.  They can’t sell us $.50 worth of manufacturing for $18 anymore.”  And I am definitely one of them saying this.  But, guess what?  This type of change is going hit to the software industry somewhere in the next 5 years.  Customers will start to tell vendors something like “Your quality is unacceptable; we’re not buying / upgrading”  or “I’m going with the Open Source equivalent”.  (And if you doubt this, you should have see Jeremy Zawodny’s presentation at OSCON where he disclosed that Yahoo has replaced Oracle with MySQL for certain applications).  I’ve tested this hypothesis on more than 25 people, all in the tech industry, all veterans of the business and they all agree.  There is a big chunk of the commercial software business that will disappear in the next 5 years.  And, since the need for software won’t go away, it will inevitably be replaced by Open Source.  Dave, I suspect that what you want is a return to the glory days of the software business – when customers paid for technology.  I’m sorry but those days are either gone or disappearing fast.

So, at the heart of it Dave, no  one is coercing me at all.  I’m NOT a slave and I don’t appreciate being called one.  I’m doing it for a lot of different reasons – and I’m making money at it (my partner and I just became profitable as of last week, largely because Open Source gave us the ability to bid complex projects much more cheaply so we got the work and didn’t have to spend hugely on tools).   We’ll also make money when we release our Open Source products.  It may not be the kind of huge profit margins traditionally found in high technology but the times, they are a’ changing (to quote Bob Dylan).  And the Open Source wave is only starting to crest.



  • Thanks to Guy K. Haas for reviewing this and making helpful suggestions
  • Thanks to Kjartan and others for fine tuning the arguments found here
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