Freeing the software

I’m still thinking about starting a little shareware company some day. A microISV, as it were. It’s pretty much a back-of-mind thing, but it’s there. The seed of an idea sittting around waiting for the right soil conditions or water or temperature or whatever else seeds in extended metaphors wait for.

Tangentially, we went to see Richard Stallman give a talk at the CSC a while ago. RMS is an interesting guy. He believes, of course, that no-one should be in the business of selling software. He goes as far as to consider it practically criminal.

The RMS talk I went to wasn’t a free software talk, incidentally. Maybe I’ll talk about what it was actually about at some point. He started off, though, with his four fundamental freedoms of free software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

And, you know, on a fundamental level, I totally agree with him. On another level, I’d like to build a software product and be able to sell it. Hell, I work for a company that does exactly that.

I’m trying to figure out how I reconcile those levels.

Having followed the ideas of people like Cory Doctorow for a while, I’ll happily talk about how musicians and artists and other people really should start to let go of the idea that they can make a living selling bits. There’s no scarcity in bits. If it can be copied, it will be. I guess to some extent that’s because software “piracy”‘s been around so long that it’s just something I accept as given. I expect musicians and filmmakers and artists have to catch up.

The response to how a musician will make money if they give their music away for free (or it’s taken from them, either way, it’s inevitible) is they’ve got to change the model to making money off concerts and merchandise. From what I hear, that’s pretty much how any small to midsized artist with a label makes any money anyway. The music is marketing. It gets people in the bars or stadium seats.

RMS says something similar about programmers. 95% of programmers, he says, make their money from custom development. So it’s no great loss if no-one can make money selling software. Software developers still have jobs, because custom development will always need to be done somewhere.

But people do make money from selling software. Just like people will keep on making money from selling music even after record companies give up suing their fans. The question is, should they? Is it really in their best interest? Giving the content away for free might be, counter-intuitively, profit maximizing. There are lots of musicians out there. Your greatest challenge as a musician isn’t stopping kids from pirating; it’s actually getting an audience. People won’t pay any attention to you if they don’t know who you are.

Taking the music marketing analogy, the open source software you write and projects you contribute to becomes marketing for your skills as a developer. There are lots of shareware companies out there. People won’t use your software if they can’t see the value in it. I want to make software; I don’t want to be a salesman.

However, I also don’t particularly want to work commission for some bank writing crappy database entry forms all day (not that there’s anything wrong with that…).

I’m not a free software zealot by any stretch, but I do very much see the value of a rich ecosystem of free software out there. And personally, I’d rather use free software than stuff I’d have to pay for, even if I was able to get it for free (not that I would, of course).

I know there’s a way to make this it all work, just like I know the whole thing with music and movies will work itself out in the end. We’ll all be richer for it when it does.