Should Libré Software be Gratis?

In which I respond to a question about free/libre software.

I was inspired to write about this question because Kezz Bracey on Mastodon asked me a rather pointed question:

Do you feel that all libre software should be gratis?

Kezz Bracey – 2020-05-07

My short answer to this question is “yes”. I feel that libré software should be gratis, at least so far as practical. My main point of contention is that there does not seem to be a difference between selectively licensing your software to paid customers, and charging for access to libré software. Can you even truly claim your software is “open source” if no one but paid customers can access it? Are they allowed to distribute it freely? Make modifications and sell or redistribute their modifications to it in turn? These are all things that free software permits you to do.

The Long Answer to Libré/Gratis

Free software doesn’t always mean you just give it away. You can charge for running services on it, you can even charge for hosting the storage and services that it runs on. You can charge for support or maintenance. I’ve even seen models on platforms like iOS, where it’s a pain to build binaries for (developer fee, need a Mac, etc), so the source code to the program is free, but the compiled program is charged for to cover those fees.

There are also situations where you can have open source, but charge for things like art assets or server resources and additional features. You can charge for licensed components, like ActiveSync. Business models that include open source are different than the traditional model because you’re giving away the special sauce. This puts a business owner in a tricky situation, because you need to be more creative on how you raise revenue. Red Hat, however, proves that it can be done, and on scale.

I don’t begrudge people making money. It is an essential thing. Many free software developers simply work day jobs, contributing their time and energy during their off-hours. A lucky few work on it full time, paid to develop the tools that we use every day. It’s not easy to live that dream, certainly, but it does seem possible.

I’m hardly one to tell people how to operate. My opinions on the matter are just that, my own opinions. Much like there are lots of different licenses in the world, there are different approaches to this question. This is just mine.

Thank you.

By Nathan

Nathan is a technologist and Open Source enthusiast living and working in Florida. Often, he can be found playing board games with his family, video games by himself or breaking technological things in order to fix them "better".