Free software doesn't mean free people

Free software doesn't mean free people


A friend of mine is a core developer on a free software project that most people would consider one of the top ten in overall importance, especially in terms of getting mainstream users migrated to free software overall. He’s a known expert on this project, and very knowledgeable about free software in general, from both technical and business standpoints. I won’t say who it is, but he has plenty of publications to back up his expert status.

He’s getting frustrated with the free software world.

As an expert on this particular project, he gets support requests from all over the place. And they all want more for free than just the software. They expect him to provide free support, and do it with a smile. Some of the requests are from companies trying to deploy on their own. Some are from independent consultants who need extra help with a client’s problem. Some are from other projects working toward interoperability. And some are large, well-known software companies who depend heavily on his project to achieve their long term goals. What? Calling him for free help when they profit from his project? This is ridiculous and insulting.

Free software brings so much value to commercial entities, and it’s a shame that they think they don’t have to pay for anything at all, including the time of the people working to support it. Core developers of important free software projects deserve to make a good living the same as developers of proprietary software (or more so, even). An expert like my friend should never want for paid work. Companies who profit from free software projects have a responsibility to the community to hire free software developers whenever they become available. It sends a message to the community that the for-profit world appreciates the efforts of core developers. It acknowledges that their success is based on the volunteer work of others. Anything short of this will only damage corporate relationships with the community.

But this hasn’t happened for my friend, and he’s beginning to wonder if the free software movement is worth it. He’s put years of his life into a critically important project, and he’s tired of getting support calls from a company that expects to profit from his work without ever compensating him. In short, he’s pissed off, and he’s reconsidering whether this model is really going to work in the long run. Yes, he knows he was volunteering for this project. But free software won’t succeed unless there’s a reasonable incentive for developers. That incentive doesn’t come from license fees, of course, but you can’t live on notoriety alone.

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Comments

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Comment from: Matt Barton [Member] · http://mattbarton.net

2005-12-01 @ 15:13
I don't really understand your friend very well. If I were in his place, and a for-profit called me wanting support, I would say, "Well, I would like to help you, but I'm neither willing or able to do it for free. Let's talk about a per/hour rate for providing professional tech support for my software."

Even Microsoft doesn't freely offer the level of support your friend is offering. I don't know anyone who does! I'd simply tell them to "put up or shut up," and that'd be the end of it.

Comment from: Maria Winslow [Member] · http://windows-linux.com

2005-12-01 @ 15:27
That's what he's done, actually, and he is amazed by the degree of resistence he's getting.

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Biography

As an Open Source Practice Leader with Virtuas, Winslow assists clients in understanding the technical and budgetary impact free software will have on their computing environments. Her recent book, “The Practical Manager’s Guide to Open Source”, guides IT directors and system administrators through the process of finding practical uses for free software that will integrate seamlessly into existing infrastructures, as well as understanding the costs and savings. She is a frequent speaker and author on the topic of free software. She can be reached via the Practical Open Source website.