Open Source and Money

Matt Asay wrote an article about open source leakage. It’s quite good, and got me thinking.

First I thought, “Open source companies do not ‘lose’ revenue to non-paying customers, they just do not gain revenue from them.” But that’s based on the model of open-source software I have in my head that open source software usually starts out as a free, collaborative effort, and if enough folks get enough steam and come up with a business model (aka “a way to get paid”), then they form a company around the open source software.

Simplifying that model: open source software is free until it’s not.

Saying there is leakage does not do justice to the fact that the river flowed freely until the company came along and dammed up the river. Sure, maybe there’s a big leak, but there’s a lot more not leaking than there is leaking.

But open source != free. And it’s not required, either.

Take a for-pay e-book. You buy a license for a personal copy of a book, and read it. You’re not supposed to make copies of the e-book, or redistribute it, etc under the terms of your license.

However, you can “delve into the source code” of an e-book. You cannot change it and redistribute it claiming you authored it. You can, however, change the words in the book to make it more meaningful for yourself. There’s nothing to stop you from annotating the work. The source is open — all the words are there for you to play with.

Now, open source is like that e-book. There’s nothing that says open source HAS to be free. By convention, it has been. Patents are good for keeping secrets and making money. The open source movement shuns patents. But they’re not shunning the making money. They’re shunning the secretive nature of it.

I once had a housemate who was vegan, whose brother owned a restaurant 3,000 miles away. She made the best vegan pancakes, and refused to give out the recipe because it was her brother’s secret recipe. Now, vegan pancakes are not that complicated. There are about 5 ingredients that could go into them. Why the need for the secret? Because her brother would lose business? Restaurants produce cookbooks all the time; I doubt business would die if the recipe got out.

And that’s what open source is all about — “I have this great recipe for vegan pancakes, and I want to share it with you.”

Let me be clear: I think that open source companies deserve to be paid for their work. Much of the time the products are excellent. That does not mean it’s bug-free. (I live in the United States, and I think it’s one of the best countries to live in, but that does not mean we do everything right….far from it!) Most of this is a semantic rant.

I find it amusing that it used to be difficult to convince big companies that open source was good, because upper management equated free with bad. Now that we’ve convinced some of them, we’re upset that it’s difficult to convince big companies that they should pay for something we give them for free.

I think MySQL actually has a sane licensing policy, and I think they’re going in the right direction with MySQL Network. Having free software and for-pay technical service and support seems like a good mix….for MySQL. I can certainly see that being abused by a company that has a bad product, intentionally, to get more $$ out of customers because they are forced to get support — much like Remedy requires lots of customization before it actually can work. MySQL is much better than that.

I think MySQL in particular would do well to offer “Optimization Consulting” for a fee. I know they offer that already, but particularly call it that, as I am always hearing about companies looking for a MySQL consultant for a few weeks to help them optimize their servers.

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