Free software is a lie.
At least in the sense that it didn’t “cost” anything to make it or give it to you, the user. Someone put hours into figuring out how the program should work, designing user interface, and distributing it. Even still, there are millions of lines of open source code in a seemingly endless array of programs that are free to download, use, and modify.
I’m working on a new app and getting ready to release it. It’s a client for the open-source Zotero research, reference and bibliography manager. I’ve put more than a few hours into it. And now I’m trying to decide if I’ll release it as open source, as open source code but a paid download, or as a paid download only.
As I’ve been pondering this, I came to the realization that many of the big, successful, open source, “free” projects out there are sponsored in no small part by institutions and corporations. WordPress, possibly one of the more visible projects, is supported in large part by Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, and the WordPress Foundation (501c3), which itself is sponsored by other corporations. While many people contribute to both the core project and the ecosystem of plugins that has made WordPress so popular, many of these contributions are either the result of a developer needing to implement a feature for a paid project, or otherwise wanting to have a particular feature. Goodwill toward humanity plays a part, sure. But many people make a living off of WordPress. (Myself included, sometimes, sorta.)
Another project supported along similar lines is the Bolt content management system. While many people have contributed (I’ve even thrown in a couple lines), as the website says, “the continuing development of Bolt is backed by Two Kings webdelopment.” Much of the core was written by a developer with Two Kings, and its because they can use it to support their own work for clients that it continues to be developed. Sure, the developers are philosophically aligned with the ideals of open source software. But this freedom to invest time and energy into a product that others may use for free or even earn money with is itself a freedom that comes from a place of privilege. Developers can contribute because they have the time to, and aren’t tied down to other work.
Of course, by going open source, project developers get to tap in to a much larger development community. Features get added that the original developers might never have gotten around to, and they can take advantage of this work in their own projects. The product is better for being open source. And as much as having disposable time is an outcome of a certain level of privilege, open source is also levels the playing field. To develop a site for a client, a web developer doesn’t need to buy Dreamweaver (or the entirety of Adobe CS) and the web hosting company doesn’t need to buy Windows Server licenses. Instead, they can tap into the same open source solutions that some of the “big guys” are using – WordPress, Linux, Apache, etc., etc. While one still needs to have the time to learn how to develop using these tools, one doesn’t have to lay out a fortune to just get in the door.
Even Zotero itself exists today in largely because of its institutional backer, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Through funding from major foundations, the Center is able to support the infrastructure (including free storage space for library syncing) and pay developers to create new features, answer user questions, and generally help other scholars manage research projects more effectively. In contrast, the other competitors in this market tend to be publishers who sell reference management software to libraries and institutions. Users can get “free” copies from their institutions, but the institution has paid for it. These commercial offerings are also created in part as an effort to tie users more closely to their publishing services, publishing services that are again paid for by institutions. The reference management software field is not a gold mine. Zotero contributes to the efforts of scholars globally and is better for being an open source project. (I read a blog post about this by one of the developers, but ironically now I can’t find it.) But make no mistake, it’s not “free”.
So what of me and my app? First, I need to test it some more. It’s built as an Ionic Cordova app, which has its benefits and downsides. But then what? While at first glance selling an app that connects to an open source project sounds bad, I don’t have any sort of institutional or corporate backing of any kind. Neither is this providing opportunities for me as a platform for providing paid services. (There’s also precedent for this in that some of the other apps for Zotero are paid, for largely the same reasons.) Another solution would be to release the code as open source but still charge for the app. (Several licensing schemes enable this.) However, this could get messy, so I’d have to evaluate it before following that path.
The best option would be to have someone, an individual, an institution or a corporation, sponsor the project, in whole or even in (even very small) part. I can think of several ways in which this could work out. There are lots of features to be worked on, so sponsoring individual features would be possible. (This is already done through bounties on some projects.) Sponsoring the entire project would also be welcome. There are also other ways of encouraging sponsorship, including PayPal buttons and this newish thing out of Ambridge, PA, called Gratipay. It allows people to support the work of other people, usually developers, through small weekly donations.
Yes, I know that saying “free software is a lie” is a bit hyperbolic. But it’s all too easy to forget that time and money goes into these things. Free software tends to exist, imaginatively, in our computers, or out in the internet clouds somewhere, just there for the downloading. But it’s really made of well-worn fingers and lots of money.