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Weekly Column

Open and Shut: Does Sveasoft (Or Anyone Else) Have the Right to Make a Living From Open Source Software?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week's WiFi-in-the-sky column generated a lot of reader interest that we'll get back to next week, but first I have to write about an issue I'm tangentially involved in -- how people can and can't make money from Open Source software distributed under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License (GPL). Sveasoft, the little router firmware company on an island off the coast of Sweden that I have written about before, switched this week 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. It is time for some people to grow up.

A Sveasoft subscription costs $20 per year, which gives you access to the 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. 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.

Most of the people involved in this dispute have never read the Free Software Foundation's General Public License, 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. If it did say that, Red Hat wouldn't have a market capitalization in the billions of dollars. IT IS OKAY 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 -- a dispute that is mirrored continually by hundreds of other products in the Open Source world and is worth covering mainly for that reason -- are "beta version," "release version," "cost of distribution," "support," and "forking." The gist of the argument against Sveasoft is that there's no forking support.

Where the rubber meets the code in this dispute 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.

WHY they aren't violating the GPL is harder to explain, but I'll try anyway.

The GPL mandates access to source code, not to product support beyond such access. No Open Source developer is required by the GPL to answer your questions EVER. This is how most Open Source software companies make their money, charging for support. You can get their code for free, but if you want any help in installing, customizing, or using it, they can charge you. Some companies don't charge for support, but they typically aren't relying on that product to support their kids.

Though the GPL says there must be free access to source code, this means free as in "freely available," not free as in "totally without cost." But the cost is limited to what's reasonable considering the delivery channel. That's why shrink wrapped boxes full of Linux down at CompUSA cost money. The code may be free, but the box and the manual and the shipping and the fee to CompUSA aren't.

Then there is the nature of Open Source development, which is typically forgotten in this argument. Think of this in terms of inputs and outputs. Any Open Source development project is composed of raw materials, some of which are previously developed Open Source products and the rest are original work products of these particular developers for this particular project. Part of the Sveasoft firmware, for example, is Wonder Shaper, which in turn is mainly composed of other Open Source products integrated together.

Someone has to be in charge of any Open Source development project or nothing will be accomplished. Open Source is not anarchy. The person or persons taking charge have some control over the code during this time, but that control is limited. Specifically, they can reject my involvement in their project (this is covered in the GPL), but they can't deny me access to source code. This is where projects fork, which means they diverge into two or more development streams usually heading in slightly different directions. A fork is usually triggered by differing interests: I want to target the product for the PowerPC, you don't, in which case the project forks and I take a copy of the current source with me to the new development group I am starting. But projects can also fork because of differing personalities or values: I am such a pain in the butt to work with that you urge me to take the current source and fork-off.

Now back to Sveasoft, where you can get the released software for free because it is no longer being developed. Or you can buy a support subscription, which is perfectly allowed by the GPL, and buys you access to the development group and its beta code. If you don't like those restrictions you can take the current beta source with you and start your own development group. But that will cost $50 as a reasonable price for sending a CD from Sweden to anywhere in the world. It will also cost you your membership in the Sveasoft development group and access to its support services because you have decided to fork.

What people don't like is the $50 charge, which seems to them excessive, and the restriction that you can't continue to use your $20 subscription rights once you have either bought the $50 source code CD or violated the development group rules by giving away beta code to those who aren't qualified to receive it by way of subscription. This latter bit is a support forum terms of service issue, not a GPL issue.

Fifty probably is a little steep, but this is a guy living on an island in Sweden serving a global user base. The method he has chosen for forking source distribution is physical media, the most expensive method short of having you type-in the code from a printed listing, but it is within his rights to do that. If you don't like it you can always drop back one version, take the freely downloadable code, and fork from there.

The question that is being neither asked nor answered here is how can one make an acceptable living from Open Source? Most of the people complaining about Sveasoft can easily afford the $20 subscription or the $50 forking fee but they are just annoyed that any money is involved. Some of them simply like to argue.

For Open Source to remain viable and vibrant, 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. 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 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.

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