You've probably heard of this intriguing new crowd-funding service called Kickstarter, right? (If not, how are you getting this website from that cave of yours?). A lot of people are using it to fund all kinds of exciting new things, and it's obviously useful option for free software projects. Properly used, it can allow us to close the gap against proprietary applications that still have more polish or exist in niches that require more capitalization. But the idea that it is somehow immoral to ask for money to work on free software has got to go!
Recently, I've supported a few free software projects on Kickstarter, and I've started one of my own ( Lib-Ray ). I've gotten a lot of support, but also some criticism. A lot of it is more or less reasonable (yes, even the criticism).
The criticism I find most bizarre is the idea that because it is "free software" it ought to be written for free -- that there's something ethically questionable about asking for money to work on it
The criticism I find most bizarre, though, is the idea that because it is "free software" it ought to be written for free -- i.e. that there's something ethically questionable about asking for money to work on it. And I've heard this same objection leveled at other crowd-funded free software projects (but not at corporate ones?). This is such an insane objection, I really feel I need to address it with a column.
"Freedom isn't free"
We call it "free software", and it usually is "free" (zero-cost) as well as "free" (unrestricted). But, advocates have always been quick to point out that we mean "free as in free speech" and not "free as in free beer". And, as with many other activities, it really does cost money to produce free software.
As with many other activities, it really does cost money to produce free software
Many times, this money is in the form of opportunity cost -- I spent time on this project, when I could've spent that time on some other (paying) project. Or the cost is entirely redeemed by the benefit to the developer (using this saves me so much time it's worth all the time I spent on it, and I don't see why I shouldn't share the result).
Or maybe, the developer is just doing it out of "love". But this love doesn't pay the bills. So how are they doing that? Chances are, they're probably doing it by developing proprietary software or doing some other thing for the Corporate Hegemony that we all love to hate so much (and yet find ourselves running back to for sustenance when the chips are down).
But here's the thing: if you don't like the Corporate Hegemony stomping all over your life, then why are you helping them? Without sustainable models for funding free software development, we're stuck with them.
If you don't like the Corporate Hegemony stomping all over your life, then why are you helping them?
At this point, someone usually raises the (by now very tired) list of known business models for supporting free software from scratch (sell services, sell development, etc... You know the drill by now).
But there are two very serious problems with that list:
1) It's too short
The list of proprietary business models that are known to work is quite a bit longer.
2) They're all on awfully thin margins
I hate to say this, because I love what these guys do, but companies like Red Hat and Canonical are basically cashing in on a lot of free labor, and it's the only way they can stay in business. If they had to actually pay for developing all of GNU/Linux based on their proceeds, it just wouldn't work (especially if they had to pay for it first with investment funding).
Most of the really big fancy free software applications (Blender, Open Office, Mozilla, and so on) did not start out as free software, so their development was not financed by these free software business models. They were financed and sold as proprietary products.
It was not until after their development was a sunk cost that the companies behind them could think of changing them to a free license (and either capturing more income that way or simply cutting losses).
Some applications are really hard to finance this way
Much of the success of free software comes from the fact that most software does not have to start out big. Most software is based on a simple idea that can implemented with just a few hundred lines of code. Then, gradually, bells and whistles are added in a way that can be easily "crowd-sourced" (not what we used to call it, but what it's called now).
That is in itself a fantastic insight, and it's part of why GNU/Linux is so awesome. In fact, it turns out that in many cases, this approach actually yields better software.
There are some applications that have been consistently lagging in free software, and the reason is simply that they require enormous capitalization. Let me list two that have plagued me personally:
- A professional-level CAD application
- A professional-quality non-linear video editor
But there are others, and even when there is a pretty good contender, there is often still a gap that professionals in the field find frustrating. And so, proprietary software continues to have an advantage in these fields.
There are some applications that have been consistently lagging in free software, and the reason is simply that they require enormous capitalization
And of course, as long as all of the capitalization for even rather small projects is derived from corporate employment, it stands to reason that the motivations of developers will always be in some conflict. You don't want to compete with your employers (in fact, sometimes, you're contractually obligated not to). And that starves free software of some of the most talented developers in many fields.
But we can make that advantage disappear...
It turns out that money is this amazingly useful stuff. All I have to do is send some to the bill collectors, and they leave me alone for a month. Isn't that something?
But a high-return technology start-up business is not the only option for gettng it. A few enterprising free software entrepreneurs have turned to crowd-funding as a way to bridge the gap and get high-capitalization free software projects launched.
This worked for Diaspora (which is alive and well, despite criticisms you may have heard. Of course, there is competition and even some attempt at cooperation between different federated social media systems like Friendika and Identica). It also worked for Novacut, an innovative new video editor that I hope will either grow into the NLE I need, or else contribute to others.
A few enterprising free software entrepreneurs have turned to crowd-funding as a way to bridge the gap and get high-capitalization free software projects launched
With capital, you can afford to put the bells and whistles on at the beginning, which may help to woo users away from proprietary alternatives. And you can just pay developers to trudge through the mountains of tedious, detailed work that some projects (including anything that pushes the hardware hard, as graphics, sound, and multimedia applications tend to do). You can actually spend some of it to buy hardware to test on.
This gives you options that proprietary companies take for granted, but that free software projects usually have had to live without.
...if we get over the idea that free software must always be free
But you'll have to get over the idea that free software means you never have to pay money for things. If you want development to happen on high-capital projects, then you'll have to accept that the developers might not want to work for free.
At that point, you have a choice -- support projects that will be free software from the get-go, through methods like crowd-sourcing. Or, just accept that you are dependent on proprietary corporate culture to subsidize these things for you.