Charging for GNU/Linux is not the answer

Charging for GNU/Linux is not the answer

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.



Terry Hancock's picture

Of course, most distributions are already available for some fee, and some of that money goes to developers and maintainers.

For example, when I buy Debian on CDs (or more likely DVDs nowadays), I can choose from a number of suppliers. Some of them either donate an advertised fraction of the cost of the disks or provide an option to add a donation to the purchase. Socially conscious buyers will generally be inclined to pay a small amount, especially when they are already spending money on the disks themselves. The money goes to the non-profit corporation "Software in the Public Interest" that is Debian's sponsoring organization. I'm not certain about how the money is used, but I suspect this is how they pay for the machines that Debian runs its services on.

I don't generally donate any money directly to Debian, but I always do when I buy disks. It's just easy to do when you've already got your wallet open, as it were.

Of course, with broadband much more available than it used to be, I have less cause to buy disks. I'm not sure where that will lead.

But the idea is basically sound. Without restrictive licensing and prohibitions against copying, there is no way to enforce such payments, but there are a variety of ways to encourage them. I suspect this is what the author was originally promoting, albeit in a somewhat provocative way.

On the other hand...

If you did manage (somehow) to change the licensing, you could make the pricing mandatory -- but only at the expense of destroying the product. Because, basically, if you take away the free license, there's no real point to GNU/Linux (if you want a proprietary Unix, you can buy one now from several vendors).

You could argue (as some have) that the product has intrinsic quality that would still exist if the licensing were proprietary -- but that would be a fleeting benefit, because the free license is what keeps it at such high quality.

Fortunately for all of us, the legal process required to change the license is extraordinarily difficult (because of the terms of the GPL, the ridiculous duration of modern copyright terms, and the extremely distributed ownership of the copyrights in important free software projects). So, it's very likely that no one would succeed in making such a transition.

There was of course, a useful test case which provides empirical support for that: when Xfree86 converted to a non-free license, practically all contributors jumped ship and created the fork, which effectively replaced XFree86 (which for all intents and purposes is frozen and dead now). That was over just reintroducing the old BSD advertising clause -- you can imagine what would happen if more substantive changes were to be made.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Distro's are charged for but in those cases you are rarely paying for the licence itself which seemed to be the point of the original article.

I'm quite happy for people to charge for services -- like distro compilation, testing, media etc. -- or even the software itself but in the case of the latter you can't sustain the model.

The original piece also made a slight mistake in comparing two fundamentally different products and markets. The professional sports ticket analogy is a cathedral model in its purest sense.


Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and