I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a item entitled "Maybe we should charge for Linux" in an established GNU/Linux site like Linux Today, and from the managing editor no less! Well I just couldn't let it pass without comment.
The author of that piece (Brian Proffitt) asked us to "put the pitchfork and torches away". Well don't worry Mr Proffitt, I'm not a fan of pitchforks. I did read your piece in full before writing this so what follows is -- I hope -- a measured response.
Cost is not the issue
The main thrust of the piece seems to be that if consumers are content with paying for their software (or baseball tickets) and associate worth with the price then perhaps we should give them the impression that GNU/Linux has a greater worth by charging them. To quote the article: "After all if they (myself included) are consistently willing to pay the prices ... then clearly this is what the market will bear. "
Free software says that the users have a voice and value way beyond the extent of their wallets
The problem is that as I've said before the game is changing and cost of the licence is becoming a much lesser part of the issue of obtaining software. Businesses will rightfully consider things like TCO whilst home users have always gone for other things like ease of use, suitability of purpose and whatever their personal computer "expert" recommends. As Mr Proffitt says when people migrate to GNU/Linux it is usually for reasons other than licence cost. That should tell us something -- Linux users (new and old) are less consumers and more users. Despite so many attempts by proprietary software companies to turn us all into consumers, free software including GNU/Linux has breathed life back into the idea that we -- the users -- have a voice and value way beyond the extent of our wallets. This should be the thrust our message. I know plenty of Windows users who are growing increasingly tired of the way they are being treated by Microsoft, my response is to highlight the freedom of free software and then -- when they ask "yeah but how much will that cost me?" I tell them (but only if they ask).
What's the point of charging at all?
I do understand why the idea of charging would seem attractive -- it does counter the "gratis = cheap = nasty" opposition argument very well. But the licence (the GPL) doesn't really support a model where you charge for software -- well not in the way that the proprietary licences do, and that's what this idea is pitching against. The freedom of the GPL means I can charge my users for software licences but I cannot prevent them giving it away. So while the GPL does not prohibit charging, there seems little opportunity to build a business on selling software licenced under it. So even if, say , Debian did charge me $20 for a licence, how much money would they make if I -- and everybody else--can give the software away for nothing.
The danger of pricing yourself lower
Charging only $20 per licence. It all sounds like a nice idea and is controversial enough -- I suspect -- to lead to a significant increase in hits on LinuxToday[i]. The thing is it's not really viable and if it ever came to fruition I think it would actually cheapen the image of GNU/Linux.
[i] Don't get me wrong I'm not suggesting that was Mr Proffitt's reason for writing the piece but I bet it was a nice side effect though.
When I think of all those small-scale alternative office suites that are a fraction of the cost of MS Office practically every one of them has an reputation of cheap and nasty with my Windows using associates. Zero cost has the same kind of impact so if you are going to counter the "gratis=cheap=nasty" argument then pricing yourself below the competition is not the way to do it -- is it?
Another danger of getting into the pricing bun-fight is that it is clearly Microsoft territory. They would probably love it if free software started to try and compete on their terms. The scary part of free software for Microsoft is that it doesn't compete on their terms -- it tells users that those terms are wrong and unfair and it offers an entirely different approach. That approach -- giving freedom to users (and thus preventing them becoming blind-consumers -- is what scares Microsoft and their compatriots. They can't compete with it -- this why all their opposition comes in other forms: patents, "intellectual property" and good old FUD.
So let's leave the proprietary guys to their silly selling licences games -- it's a boring game anyway and it really doesn't mix well with free software. Our best arguments have always been about freedom and -- as Brian Proffitt agrees, they are successful as well.