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OSS and the Profit Motive

by dragonchild (Archbishop)
on Mar 03, 2006 at 11:51 UTC ( #534204=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

(This is a direct response to O'reilly some sort of perl monopoly? and (OT troll) New Section: PHP. Please read those posts for the context in which this meditation is written.)

The Free and Open-Source Software worlds (aka, F/OSS, and yes, they aren't synonymous) are and aren't certain things. Unfortunately, the distinction between those things is often blurred, for various reasons. I'm going to assume that, for most people, the reason is ignorance. Not blind unwilling ignorance, but "I haven't been exposed to the facts" ignorance. So, here's some facts.

F/OSS is:

  • A way to collaborate on software
  • A new way of thinking about software
  • An attempt to get good quality software into the hands of as many people as possible
  • A way of providing the tools to do all of the above


  • An attempt to deny the profit motive
  • An attempt to destroy the copyright or patent process
  • An attempt to steal intellectual property (aka IP)
  • An attempt to push all IP into the public domain or Creative Commons

Larry (and a few others) own Perl (they have the copyright). Literally, just like I own the shirt on my back. They have chosen to give up a good portion of control normally associated with ownership over Perl, but it is not public domain. Something is public domain if there isn't a specific owner.

As for the profit motive, let's look at a great example - RedHat. RedHat makes a lot of money on Linux. (Last year, they had revenues of almost $200 million dollars.) They do so in four ways:

  1. You can pay for them to support your Linux installation
  2. You can pay for them to train your people
  3. You can pay for a tested Linux distribution that's tailored to your needs (Yes, a given Linux distribution can be sold and Linux is under that "damned viral GPL".)
  4. You can pay for the RedHat brand

What's the upshot? A lot of companies (including my employer) make a lot of money off of F/OSS. I get paid to write F/OSS that furthers the needs of my employer. F/OSS isn't the enemy of profit ... it just means you have to profit on your work, not your shrinkwrap.

My criteria for good software:
  1. Does it work?
  2. Can someone else come in, make a change, and be reasonably certain no bugs were introduced?

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by zentara (Archbishop) on Mar 03, 2006 at 16:01 UTC
    I agree. I've seen for a long time that making money off of free software involves providing expert technical support for installing and running the free software, not writing it. There are the obvious in-house exceptions, where you are writing custom apps for a specific purpose in a company or research unit.

    Now Microsoft feels threatened by this, because their whole selling strategy is to let them do all the technical support, thus taking the burden off of your IT people. We all have seen what a mess they are creating. It's like mono-culture in a fruit orchard, if all the trees are the same, bugs and disease set it. But if the tress are varied, there is built in resistance.

    There is another benefit to companies buying open source, they can save a tremendous amount of money by not getting hooked into the expensive per-seat licensing that Microsoft demands. But then again, we sit here and academically talk about what is the right thing to do, but reality steps in, and political considerations overwhelm the technical ones. Like the need to prop up Microsoft stock for pension funds, and the need for the government and corporations to spy on people, which Microsoft makes possible.

    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. flash japh
Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by adrianh (Chancellor) on Mar 03, 2006 at 13:34 UTC
    A lot of companies (including my employer) make a lot of money off of F/OSS. I get paid to write F/OSS that furthers the needs of my employer. F/OSS isn't the enemy of profit ... it just means you have to profit on your work, not your shrinkwrap.


Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by spiritway (Vicar) on Mar 04, 2006 at 06:41 UTC

    A comment about "public domain" works might be in order. It is possible for something in the public domain to be taken, modified, and copyrighted or patented. There is no license protecting it from such treatment. There have been cases of people placing their works into the public domain and then losing the right to publish them because of this. I think placing software in the public domain is a mistake. Someone might grab it, and there would be no recourse.

    The GPL is viral. Its intent is to "infect" derivative works to prevent someone from trying to grab the rights to use and distribute the software (or other product). The intent is to keep the software free as in speech. There is no sinister plot, no minions of the Dark Side trying to subvert Capitalism. Just some people who feel that everyone should have access to computers and software, and who are willing to create that software and ensure it's not misused. They're not hijacking or "pirating" anyone's software; they're simply offering something else instead.

    UPDATE: OK, the word 'viral' was horribly chosen, and I repent of using it. I shall pound my head with a brick, as punishment.

      The intent is to keep the software free as in speech.

      This is technically true, but I want to clarify this point using Redhat's distributions as example. Redhat is perfectly allowed to bundle GPL'ed software, write GPL'ed installers, test it all using GPL'ed testing software, then SELL that distribution with a NON-GPL license.

      How is this possible? Well, the GPL says that anything directly derived from something that is GPL'ed must also be GPL'ed. The distribution isn't derived from anything GPL'ed ... it's built on top of things that are GPL'ed. That's the difference and it's an important difference. The distribution isn't selling the GPL'ed code, it's selling the organization of said GPL'ed code. In a very real way, it's taking a sysadmin's knowledge of how to put a Linux OS together from scratch and putting it on a CD. That isn't GPL'ed just because a sysadmin uses GPL'ed software.

      Here's another item about the viral GPL - just because you use gcc to compile your program doesn't mean it must use the GPL (unless, of course, your program is a modification of gcc). I hope this clarifies things.

      My criteria for good software:
      1. Does it work?
      2. Can someone else come in, make a change, and be reasonably certain no bugs were introduced?
      It is possible for something in the public domain to be ... patented.

      IANAL, but I believe you're wrong on this one. Works in the ublic domain count as "prior art" and demonstrably publishing a work (where "work" is fuzzy, because for the most cases copyrightable works aren't patentable anyway, software in the U.S. being one notable exception) into the public domain prevent them from being patented by anyone else. A friend of mine used to work for a large manufacturing company in Germany and his job consisted of reviewing patentable works which someone else had already decided weren't worth patenting to see whether they were worth publishing so noone else could patent them. All your other points about copyright etc. are valid AFAIK.

      All dogma is stupid.

        IANAL, either, but it sounds like you're right.

        Update: OK, I *thought* I had seen something about this. The Public Patent Foundation discusses this issue.

      The GPL is viral. Its intent is to "infect" derivative works to prevent someone from trying to grab the rights to use and distribute the software (or other product).

      I have never liked the term "viral" being associated with the GPL. I assume the term is used because a virus can be spread from one person (piece of software in this case?) to another. The GPL only "infects" its children (derivitive works). If we want to stick to biology then this is just heredity. Making the GPL sound like a disease is very misleading...

      The GPL is viral.

      Completely untrue. Copyright is viral.

        OK, perhaps I need to clarify what I meant by "viral". I did not mean, "pernicious" or "evil". I meant that the license propagates itself through its descendants. Perhaps I ought to have used the word, "genetic" as a metaphor, rather than viral. In any event, I did not mean to suggest that GPL was in any way evil or wrong. I agree with you that copyright is the culprit, not GPL.

      The intent is to keep the software free as in speech.

      Not entirely. The various BSDs, even Apple's version, are free as in beer. Sometimes the intent may be that you have found something useful and think others might find it useful, too. (Which is basically the reason Larry made Perl available to the world, if I read the histories correctly.) And I'm sure ego-stroking is part of the intent, too.

      tbone1, YAPS (Yet Another Perl Schlub)
      And remember, if he succeeds, so what.
      - Chick McGee

        Umm, how is software licensed under the BSD license not "free as in speech"? You can take BSD-licensed code and relicense it under a more restrictive license (e.g. the GPL or a proprietary license), but that doesn't take away from the fact that the original code is and remains Free/Libre Software.

        All dogma is stupid.

        Good point (I didn't know Apple's was free). No doubt there are many different reasons why people write the software they do - Larry wanted to give folks a useful product; Linus wanted a Unix clone; Stallman wanted some other goal, perhaps. And as you noted, probably getting ego strokes, recognition, was a factor for many. But that's the motivation for *writing* the software, not for choosing the license. It seems to me that, for whatever reason people wrote the software, they placed it under GPL (or similar) licenses to keep their creations 'free'. Why they wanted to keep it free may vary - some might just want to make sure they got credit for the work, which often doesn't happen with proprietary licenses. Some - the Mother Teresas of the IT world - might genuinely want to share their work with the world, so that everyone can have access to good programs. No doubt there are other motivations - heck, probably lots of people do it just to spite a certain large software company whose name I won't mention, but whose initials are "Microsoft".

        Ultimately, only the people who actually did the licensing can say with certainty what their motives were - and they might not be altogether clear about it, either.

        BTW - love the "Yet Another Perl Schlub"...

Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by madizen (Sexton) on Mar 04, 2006 at 05:16 UTC
    What F/OSS is not seems a lot like what public libraries are not. Libraries from time to time draw fire from booksellers, video stores, etc., with vague assertions that free information by definition must undercut and deny the for-profit movement of media. But studies show again and again that libraries are really great grease in the economic engine, and that avid patrons buy just as much or more from library “competitors”. I don't know of any similar study for F/OSS, but I don't doubt that it would show many ancillary benefits to the entire software industry.
Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by chanio (Priest) on Mar 04, 2006 at 00:06 UTC
    What is worth to add is the reason why OS threatens M$ just by creating 'tendencies of consumption'. It all comes from a commercially badly chosen starting path:

    At the begining, M$ said that their software was sort of freeware for home users, because their target was the big companies using it. But as time passed, they started restricting more and more its 'popular use', and even the hints that they provided for other companies to build good working software inside their operating system.

    They now, trust that they are the only ones that can decide the future of PC users. They need to base on their resources, promotions and not in what is required. This is the end of creative software. They are boring.

    They have forgoten what is the mother of all invention. And OS is just what people needs. They reflect what we are missing. So, these times, are going to benefit just LINUX, because of its only OS nature.

Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by duff (Parson) on Mar 03, 2006 at 20:47 UTC

    Yours is one node I wish I could ++ multiple times. Well said!

Re: OSS and the Profit Motive
by Juerd (Abbot) on Mar 07, 2006 at 10:40 UTC

    A new way of thinking about software

    Just to share the perspective of a kid: to me it is not new. Since this year approximately, I have used (and been conscious about it) F/OSS for half of my life with computers. Although I know the history, and am plagued by non-free, closed, software almost every day, I'm unable to see F/OSS as a new way of thinking, only not as archaic as the painful alternative.

    Now if only there was a way to convince the ignorant, stupid, non-geek part of "my generation".

    Juerd # { site => '', plp_site => '', do_not_use => 'spamtrap' }

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[1nickt]: No James, on the plane!!!!! See Atlanta yesterday
[1nickt]: marto I know I would lose my mind and end up arrested, but my question is, how come that doesn;t happen on each plane?!
[james28909]: oh were just sitting on the runway in the plane?
[james28909]: derp that is what the question says xD i need more coffee
[james28909]: if were aloud to drink, i would have a few shots to lighten up the atmosphere first
[james28909]: then i would have a come to jesus meeting with the little kid kicking my seat from behind
[marto]: 1nickt it depends on the people on the plane I guess. On a related note I'm unsure why they sell booze on planes & airports, seems like a bad mix to me. Profit before sanity I guess

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