Coming around again

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My previous blog, Pay a little now, pay a lot later, generated a lot more traffic than I expected. Lots. As a consequence, it was seen by many people who probably aren’t as familiar with certain aspects of free software as my normal target audience. This led to several misunderstandings.

First, I am a capitalist. More than a few people interpreted my comments as that I thought profit is bad and companies are evil. This isn’t the appropriate forum for me to detail my political beliefs, but I assure you that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Suffice it to say that I enjoy making money and don’t begrudge anyone else turning an honest buck.

Second is the apparently common misperception that I was referring to freeware—that is, software that can be downloaded for free—rather than free software. The difference is subtle but critical. In the former, users gain no other advantage over purchased software than lack of a price tag. In the latter, users gain the legal right to tailor the software to match their needs. Although both can (usually) be obtained free of charge, only free software interests me. In the long run, saving a few dollars on the initial purchase isn’t terribly important. A company’s ability to maintain customized versions of their mission critical software, even if their vendor goes out of business or changes it in inconvenient ways, gives it a huge advantage over its competitors.

It’s not even strictly true that free software is always free of charge. Although unusual, it is possible to buy packages from certain vendors. Much more common is the purchase of support contracts. For example, if you buy a copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, you’re really paying for Red Hat’s maintenance and support. Although some have the idea that free software is supported exclusive by teenagers in their parents’ basements, the reality is that many vendors specialize is charging for these services.

Next is the belief that I advocate free software because it “feels good". No. I personally support free software because I think it’s the best solution for legal and technical reasons in addition to any moral arguments. I hate having to install proprietary software not because I think it’s unethical to sell software or out of miserliness, but because I’m always acutely aware that my fortunes are then tied to the wishes of its authors. As an individual, I loathe giving up that control over my personal information. As a businessman, I detest giving someone else the reins to my ability to earn money.

In retrospect, I should have expanded on what I meant about open systems encouraging competition on merit. I mentioned that free software and open standards allow migration between applications. They also allow migration between vendors, which is at least as important and often more so depending on how heavily a company leans on external support. If you’ve been buying support from Red Hat, you can get a competitive bid from Novell for the same services. Besides maintaining standard applications, either of those companies will gladly submit proposals to create custom versions of those applications or GNU/Linux itself. How many companies will support you to the point of offering customized versions of Windows—at any price?

I do recognize that certain proprietary applications simply don’t have suitable free software replacements (examples: Photoshop, CAD, R/3). If you have to use such software, then by all means do so. However, in these cases it’s especially important that you follow development of any free contenders. If you absolutely have to use a certain program to stay in business, you are beholden to its vendor far more than the office who simply needs a good word processor.

Finally, some felt that I dismissed home users as incapable or unimportant. I don’t think I did, and that certainly wasn’t my intent. Still, I stand by my premise that it’s not as critical for a home user to choose well as it is for a company, as the price for not doing so is much, much lower. If my sister sold her PC and bought a Mac, she’ll spend a day getting familiar with her new system and copying her data over. Larger organizations don’t have that flexibility. If they spend a huge portion of their IT budget buying a platform-specific application, they’re basically locked to that platform until such time as the vendor ports it to another platform or the the company replaces it with something else. Put another way, it’s still important for my sister to enjoy the same freedoms that I and other free software users enjoy, but her livelihood isn’t at stake if she doesn’t do so.

It’s not my goal to respond to every opinion that disagrees with mine. However, my last column received such an unanticipatedly large audience that many outside my normal readership saw it and weren’t sure what to make of my ideas. I hope a few of those people read this and that it clears up some questions for them.



Terry Hancock's picture

It's good to have clarifications like this posted every so often.

I usually describe myself as a pragmatist, too, which is why I approve more of what some people call the "open source movement", though I view it purely as a marketing campaign, since as far as I am concerned there is no material difference between "open source software" and "free software" (All software must be "free-licensed" to be considered "open source" by OSI and other "open source" authorities and all software must have "open source" to be considered "free software" -- hence each is a subset of the other, which according to formal logic, means they are the same set. QED! Everything else is hype and politics*).

But I personally feel it is more constructive to argue the practical aspects of open source. For one thing, most of the "moral" or "ethical" aspects of free-licensing only make sense once you understand the consequences of the actions you take. It's only in that pragmatic context that the ethical arguments make any sense.

I think people who obsess on what they call "moral" arguments for free software are very sheltered people who just don't realize that their arguments are meaningless within (or openly hostile to) the moral worldview of a large part of the world. I spend a lot of time trying to explain my belief systems to people who don't share my fundamental worldview, so I have to learn to speak other peoples' "moral languages", as it were. Sometimes that means you have to do "fourier transforms" in your head, as it were, to get from one worldview to the other, which can definitely be hard work, but it's rewarding when people do finally start to see the light.

I figure that once people try out free software, they'll begin to see the ethical dimension as a natural consequence of experiencing the pragmatics.

But you have to argue the pragmatic side, or you get resistance. If people think that the people who write free software get nothing for their work, then that makes them suspicious and cynical (or else they feel like they are exploiting someone -- which suggests that free software is unethical). They think they're being offered something that is "too good to be true".

That's why it's so important to show what programmers' motivations are for creating free software (I'd enumerate, but I have a blog about that in the queue for later this month, so I guess I'll refrain).

Anyway, one thing I think I should say is that just because somebody primarily likes to describe things in pragmatic terms (because they believe those have the most persuasive power) doesn't mean they don't appreciate the ethical argument. In fact many such people regard all ethics as ultimately stemming from some kind of pragmatic argument (e.g. the evolutionary view of altruism). That's a worldview in itself, of course.

Oh yeah, and I've used Photoshop and GIMP both. Guess which one I prefer? Gimp ... everytime. One the things I hate about Photoshop is that the filters almost never have any options -- whereas Gimp filters tend to be extremely programmable and flexible. I do wish somebody would go ahead and add the CMYK support to GIMP, as it is an unfortunate oversight, but honestly, I don't find it sufficient to promote Photoshop as an "irreplaceable" proprietary app. I don't think I've found anything visual that I could imagine that I could accomplish with Gimp, Inkscape, and/or Blender (there are a many things I still don't know how to do, but I know they can be done).

CAD may be a fair cop. However, I'm getting interested in BRL-CAD, I'm starting to think it's stronger than I gave it credit for.

*I've glossed over the one pragmatic difference: OSI approves "talk back" licenses which require the original author to be informed of changes. While I disapprove of their choice on this tiny point, it is hardly a matter for civil war. The distinction is over the implementation of copyleft, which both sides regard as important to the maintenance of freedom. So you see, even the only material difference is about an "ethical" issue -- the maintenance of freedom. Or is that pragmatic? That's why I argue that the whole disagreement is "specious and fractious" -- "open source" and "free" are both contractions of "free-licensed open source" which is what both parties actually mean.

Kirk Strauser's picture

I think that the ethics behind Free software are very important - they're what won me over originally, and I'm sure that RMS would say they trump all other concerns - but they don't hold much sway with business. Showing a company owner how the issue affects his bottom line is much more likely to gain his support than telling him that it's the right thing to do.

I prefer The Gimp, too, but my friends in the graphic design industry recoil in horror at it. I don't completely understand their reasoning (the biggest "problem" seems to be that The Gimp doesn't look exactly like PS), but it's pretty important to them that they have access to the software they've trained on for the last fifteen years. You might also have a look a Krita. It's still under heavy development, but it's recently hit the point that it's nearly as stable as The Gimp, and I prefer its interface by a wide margin. Oh, and it does CMYK.

primorec's picture
Submitted by primorec on

Terry Hancock on Sat, 2006-07-15 22:03 said:

I do wish somebody would go ahead and add the CMYK support to GIMP, as it is an unfortunate oversight,

this is just one of the links found by googling:



Terry Hancock's picture

That's encouraging. Thanks for the link!

I don't actually use CMYK myself, it just seems to be the main tangible complaint of Photoshop users about Gimp, so I just want it in to shut them up! ;-)

Seriously, I'm glad to know there is a plugin for it. From the description, it sounds like it's still a bit immature, though.

I personally haven't found anything lacking in Gimp, and I use it quite often. I'm more of a vector-art user, though, so I use Skencil and Inkscape even more.

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Kirk Strauser's picture


Kirk Strauser has a BSc in Computer Science from Missouri State University. He works as a network application developer for The Day Companies, and runs a small consulting firm that specializes in network monitoring and email filtering for a wide array of clients. He has released several programs under free software licenses, and is active on several free software support mailing lists and community websites.