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Cringely: "It's OK to Charge for Open Source Software"

Cringely: "It's OK to Charge for Open Source Software"

Robert X. Cringely has been writing about how people can and can't make money from Open Source software distributed under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License (GPL).

The specific example that triggered the discussion is a little router firmware company on an island off the coast of Sweden that Cringely has written about before, and that switched recently to requiring paid subscription access to its support forums and to download beta versions of its firmware releases for running Linux on various WiFi routers.

"This change in policy has created a minor firestorm of nerd indignation that I think is not only unwarranted, but stems from essential ignorance of both the GPL and the way businesses are run," comments Cringely, adding: "It is time for some people to grow up."

He goes on describe how a Sveasoft subscription costs $20 per year, for which users get access to support forums, e-mail support, and the right to download the latest beta versions including source.

"If you don't want to pay any money you get no support or forum access, but you can download previous release versions of the software, including source," he notes.

Cringely then continues:

"For $50 (this is new), you can get a CD containing the beta source, but no support. What brought this $50 deal into existence was the action of a small group of techies who felt that $20 per year was too much to pay, so THEY released to the world the latest Sveasoft beta version, circumventing part of their subscription and violating Sveasoft's terms of service for the subscription service. Major criticism erupted on Slashdot and other sites as people saw this $50 charge as both excessive and in violation of the GPL."

This is where Cringely get off, though. For he disagrees with such criticism.

"Most of the people involved in this dispute have never read the Free Software Foundation's General Public License," he says, "which isn't about making software free as much as it is about making source code freely available."

"The GPL doesn't say that you can't charge for Open Source software," Cringely points out. "If it did say that, Red Hat wouldn't have a market capitalization in the billions of dollars. It is okat to charge for open source software. What is NOT okay is to ship object code without the associated source or to put downstream distribution restrictions on software that go beyond those in the GPL, itself."

The key terms in this particular dispute, Cringely notes, are "beta version," "release version," "cost of distribution," "support," and "forking" - the gist of the argument against Sveasoft, he adds, is that there's no forking support.

The "dispute...is mirrored continually by hundreds of other products in the Open Source world," says Cringely, "and is worth covering mainly for that reason."

"Where the rubber meets the code in this dispute," he argues, "is that the GPL compliance officer at the Free Software Foundation so far has no problem with the way Sveasoft is conducting its business. So for those who think this is a pure matter of Sveasoft violating the GPL, well, it probably isn't."

For Open Source to remain viable and vibrant, according to Cringely, "there has to be room for all types."

"Many Open Source developers are also paid programmers in their day jobs, but having that paycheck doesn't necessarily make them more understanding of Sveasoft's situation. What we have here is a confluence of forces - entrepreneurism, technical development, and personal freedom - with the GPL as a battlefield that is continually cited while being generally ignored."

"In my experience very few programmers are entrepreneurial," Cringely concludes.

"They'd like to get rich but if it happens it is usually because of someone else's dream and drive, not their own. These people, even though they accept that paycheck, prefer to think of their Open Source work on weekends as being somehow pure. And the rest of us are lucky they think that way because it is through their labor that so much Open Source progress is made. But there is room, too, for the entrepreneurs. Even the Free Software Foundation goes out from time to time looking for money, you know. A lot of Open Source progress has been driven by startups doing Open Source products with the goal of making a great living from them. And a lot has been driven by profitable companies like IBM using Open Source to drive hardware sales and to generally lower the cost of development software from which they make profits. We all benefit from these groups."
There is room for all types, he repeats, and there has to be room for all types for Open Source to work well.

"Those who are upset with James Ewing and Sveasoft don't generally begrudge him the right to make a living, they just wish he wasn't doing it this way. At the same time, they don't want the progress that his work has created to end. You can't have it both ways. There are other Open Source projects like Sveasoft's, so vote with your feet if you don't like the new policy by getting your firmware someplace else."

"But don't blame him for violating the GPL because he isn't," Cringely says.

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SYS-CON's Linux News Desk gathers stories, analysis, and information from around the Linux world and synthesizes them into an easy to digest format for IT/IS managers and other business decision-makers.

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