6 Oct 2011

Why free software really isn't (and shouldn't be) free

If you’ve looked into buying software licenses, you know that they can be expensive. Big Guns from Big Corporations charge a lot for their work - the work of their programmers, the marketing department, and so on.
Of course, there’s plenty of free software available. Here are three types of free software you may consider:

  1. Shareware / Adware. I combine these two types into one, because basically, they’re not truly “free.” You pay for its use by having limited functionality, looking at ads, etc. The author of this software gets the money.
  2. Freeware. This is software written by somebody who does not want to open the source code. Despite the closed source code, the author doesn’t forbid the free distribution and usage of the software.
  3. Open Source Software (OSS). Generally speaking, OSS is not necessary free. You can find examples in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This operating system is Open Source, but you still should buy licenses. If you don’t want to pay, you may find CentOS as an alternative, which is compiled from the same source code but is distributed for free.

The general difference between OSS and Freeware is that OSS is usually distributed under the GPL license, which binds everyone by obligation to pass all the rights to the community and distribute the source code free of charge with the software itself. Having the software code, you can check, verify, and make changes to it.
In this article, I will refer to free software as Free Open Source Software (FOSS). So, if you decide that you’re fed up with license fees and want to switch to FOSS, does that mean you’ll never have to pay for your IT costs? For individual usage, you’re probably right. After all, you can usually find help online if you run across any problems or issues. The internet is full of FOSS-oriented resources, including blogs and forums.
However, the situation is different if you’re seeking FOSS for a company. Time is often better spent doing business than digging through the Internet for the answers you need. So, in this case, you may require proper support operations. Depending on the size of the company or complexity of tasks, you may wish to hire your own specialist, outsource it, or find a combination of the two.
Besides everyday support, you’ll also need help with the actual implementation of FOSS. If you’re just starting up your business, you’ll need to work out a concept of your software usage. For people already in business, it might be necessary to add a migration strategy to the scope, especially if preexisting software is in place. Even if software is free, you still need to implement, configure, run, and maintain it.
Ultimately, both FOSS and proprietary software require some financial investment. But remember, proprietary software is not yours, even after you initially shell out a lot of money for it. When a Big Company says you need an update because they no longer support your version, the only choice you have is to update the software. However, updated versions inevitably have higher system requirements, which often equate to additional investments in hardware.
On the other hand, FOSS is yours. Sure, it has its own life-cycle and some older versions are no longer supported - but generally speaking, there are still versions of FOSS on the market that can work on x486 PCs. Since they’re (un)officially supported, they get fresh security updates and so on.
Do you have any x486 in your attic? How about a desire to put new soul in your ex-scrap? FOSS software is predominantly more efficient in resource usage, simply because it’s open. If someone sees a place that can be improved, it will happen. You don’t need to seek help from Big Company to make changes in the code.
Are you convinced? If you haven’t already, when will you start your migration to FOSS?

This article was initially posted by myself as guest post at TechRepublic blog. It continues The Week of Guest Posts.


  1. You can run a business on FOSS and pay no license fees at all, depending on the software you choose of course. If you want support from outside parties you can't really expect people to work for free so will have to pay them. The good thing about FOSS (specifically GPL) is that you can scale it to your heart's content and get anyone with required competitive skill sets to support it. The support for anything GPL can be provide by anyone with the skill set and desire to support it -- BIG advantage. You can use it as long as you want and move only when you are ready and need to move. No vendor is telling you what to do, obsoleting product, and forcing you to incur costs to benefit them through forced upgrades.

    Compare this to proprietary software where you must agree that one single party will support it and you are bound to the use limitations and monopolization of each component to respective single vendors and must operate only within the limits set forth in the restrictive EULA provided by each vendor. When vendor decides to drop support, you have no recourse and can not continue with that technology. You are forced to obsolete your solution and must go back to the vendor(s) and start all over again with their next software release, product, or platform, paying and paying along the way.

  2. oh, puh-lease! free? buy Linux CDs?

  3. @zman58:
    Thanks for rolling up my post into two paragraphs. I'd like to underline though that implementation and support services even for FOSS are not free. That's the idea.

  4. @Anonymous:
    Any problem with this? GPL?

  5. @Anonymous:

    Linux CDs or DVDs are great for 2 reasons.
    1) It's a great way to actually contribute a little bit of coin back to the project whose time and work you happen to be using.
    2) Aside from commercial use, let's think residential. There are numerous places throughout the world that may not have access to broadband Internet usage. Instead of trying to download the CentOS or Debian installation on dial-up, you can just pay a few bucks and wait for the postal service to bring it to your door.

  6. The free software community tend not to use "free" the way it's being used here (free as in beer, so that proprietary, closed source "freeware" counts as "free software"). By far the most important thing about free (as in freedom) software is that you have control over your information and all the aspects of your life that are dependent on that information. Non-free non-open-source software, "freeware" or not, deliberately hides what it's doing from you, in order to exploit your ignorance of how it works (e.g. by making you dependent on developers for bug fixes or modifications; or even in order to spy on you etc.). Non-free open-source software is better, but if it doesn't have a free software license then it's still achieving much of what closed-source code achieves, only through force of law rather than enforced ignorance. The financial costs discussed in this article are important; but in the long run, software freedom, as defined by the Free Software Foundation, will be more important for all of us, unless we want to end up paying half or more of our income to information "owners" as our lives become more and more IT dependent.

  7. You have just discussed what nearly every other open source blogged has but in less detail and not actually gotten to your own point.

    Thanks for wasting 5 mins of my life.

  8. @jayd512 I'd venture the thought that actually contributing to the software you rely on in whatever form helps forward the OSS community better than buying CD's. You can do that by bug fixing, writing documentation, providing hardware or bandwidht or maybe even employing one of the developers so he can put his whole attention to that piece of OSS you love so much.

    @DarkDuck I think you are oversimplificating GPL :-) Changes to software have to be given back to the community if you are distributing those changes. Also, there exist a number of other FOSS licenses that have different restrictions.

  9. You should really start this article out with "In my opinion". If your intention is to spin the truth than this is FUD, but I believe you wrote this post with the best intentions. There are many stages of becoming a FOSS user. You are not the first to have such an opinion, in fact, I have heard this spiel on many occasions from friends in industry.

    Free like speech, not like beer. The point of the GPL is to provide an option for everyone to work with, an option that will allow the users to do whatever with the source code while at the same time protect the community that wrote it, tested it, that might use it later etc. FLOSS removes the barriers of software licenses so that the code can progress and the developers can work together without eight rounds of NDAs and legal agreements. Those that understand FLOSS believe that industry can benefit from the GPL, just ask IBM and Oracle. But, business prosperity is not the primary directive of FLOSS. For more on this see "Revolution OS", just google it.

  10. This just in from the '90s? This is so old hat it's not even funny. This just in: The sky is sometimes blue!

  11. @jayd512:
    Absolutely agree with both points. That's why I run my site http://buylinuxcds.co.uk. It does not bring any money, but helps people with problems in making their own Linux CDs to get them.
    Will be happy if you share knowledge of this site to your friends who could be interested in it.

  12. @Anonymous:
    Did I tell or write anywhere that the article is targeted to FOSS community? Instead, it is targeted to people who are interested in getting into it, but still not part of FOSS team.

  13. @Anonymous:
    >Thanks for wasting 5 mins of my life.
    You are welcome. Thanks for wasting my time too... to read your moaning and to reply you was a real pleasure. Indeed!

  14. @Ruurd:
    Quote: "Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish)"
    That was part of GPL I was referring to.
    Reasons why I charge for CDs:
    1) It is not forbidden
    2) People who paid few pounds/dollars for CD won't throw it away immediately. They will at least try to look into it.

  15. @Anonymous:
    This is not from 90s. This is from 2011.
    But "all new is just very well forgotten old".

  16. Thae's an argument for not doing Foss research. on "company time", but that's OK. Do your education at home, not at work.