The software free-conomy

Richard Stallman, the prophet of free software, St. IGNUcius After looking through the comments to Jeff Atwood’s recent post on software product keys, I noticed that quite a few went down the rabbit-hole of  free versus paid software. People suggesting that if you don’t like paying for software, typing in license keys, managing them and other hassles, you can always go to using free software.

I can see where these people are coming from. I use plenty of free software myself: Windows Live Writer, Audacity, WinMerge, Process Explorer, PowerMenu, WiX, Notepad2, Firefox, Reflector, JAlbum, Gallery, Linux (, Paint .NET, etc. etc. etc. Many of these are essential for productive work and I’m glad they let me accomplish things.

In October 2002 I attended a talk by Richard Stallman, where he was spreading the gospel of free software, which is often equated with open source software, or OSS. It wasn’t the first time I’d started thinking about the implications of OSS, but his comments sparked further puzzlement: Is it really possible for programmers to make a living on open source software? Seeing the comments on Jeff’s blog brought back that question.

It seems to me that a lot of the more successful open source projects out there had their origin in the world of what I want to call the free-conomy, or perhaps the carefree-conomy. It’s the world all around us consisting of people who do not have to worry about real-world problems connected to making a living: Students, living on their parents’ money or borrowed money; programmers employed by large corporations (that have other means of generating income that enable them to pay the programmer to work on free software); professors in tenured positions at universities, contributing as part of their research. You get the idea.

I’d be curious to know how many of the commenters to Jeff’s post fall into that category. I’d also be curious to know how all the people who contribute to open source, or free software make a living, or how they sustain themselves. These are honestly things I’m curious about. If you’re one of them, please tell me.

I think once you transition from the free-conomy to the reality-based economy (“real life”?), your perspective changes. You start realizing that you need an income to pay the rent, clothe yourself and your family, buy food, utilities and transportation. You begin to see that if you don’t pay for the music you like to listen to, the programs you like to use, the books you like to read, the movies you like to watch and the games you like to play, the people who produce those things will not be able to support themselves, and thus there may come a time when you will no longer have that music, those programs, those books, those movies or the games.

So all the hassles that the producers of software or other digitizable content make you go through to access their creations begin to seem like a small inconvenience to pay for the privilege.

Of course, you can still debate what a fair price for such creations is, but that’s a topic for a different post. You can also debate the principles of “fair use” of the creations you may have paid for. That’s also a topic for another post.

What’s your perspective on the implications of open source software for people who make a living at software programming/development?

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