Open source’s existential dilemma: the meaning of ‘free'

Developers once were quick to distinguish open source as “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Today, as GitHub shows, they demand the beer but are nonchalant about the freedom

Open source’s existential dilemma: the meaning of ‘free'
Peter Sayer

Open source has never been more popular, but it’s unclear that this has as much to do with its licensing as with its price tag. Years ago, we were quick to distinguish open source as “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Two decades on, developers are demanding the beer but are somewhat nonchalant about the freedom. Just ask GitHub.

The GitHub generation and the rise permissive licensing

Years ago, Donnie Berkholz documented the rise of permissive licensing: a shift from restrictive, GPL-style licensing to laissez-faire, Apache-style licensing. Ever the canny observer, Glyn Moody reviewed the data and lamented, “The logical conclusion of the move to more ‘permissive’ licenses [is] one that permits everything.”

Which is exactly what happened.

As of 2013, less than 15 percent of all repositories on GitHub came with a license, open source or otherwise. After years of efforts to change this, a rising percentage of GitHub repositories now carry a license, but it’s still a puny minority of all projects.

As a side note, despite being the world’s largest repository for open source code, GitHub is itself proprietary—and no one seems to care. Ditto for Atlassian, a company that makes hugely popular, yet very proprietary, developer tools. Both are free or low cost, and that seems to be enough.)

The GitHub generation, it would seem, is all about unfettered code, and somewhat ambivalent about open source per se.

Developers: More beer, please

This is indicative of a larger issue in open source, one that has been with us since the beginning but was perhaps obscured by the religious wars such as GPL vs. Apache licensing. That issue? Developers may like freedom, but they love beer.

Sure, we like to wave the freedom flag but, as Turbonomic technology evangelist Eric Wright candidly admits, “I believe free is more of a must-have than open. While I lean towards open, I lean harder towards free.” He’s not alone. Ben Werdmuller, a longtime developer turned investor, says, “For most people, open source actually means free, and that’s the biggest selling point.”

Anyone who has worked at any open source company will recognize the truth of this statement: Most enterprises simply won’t pay for the “enterprise version” of otherwise open source software. Zack Urlocker, former EVP of product at MySQL, captures this truth in a comment perfectly: “Whenever we asked developers why they chose MySQL, the answer was always the same: It’s free.”

And yet, as Redmonk analyst Steve O’Grady points out, “Pre-cloud, free versions of closed source tools were uniformly destroyed by open source tools like MySQL.” MySQL-as-open source, it seems, meant more than MySQL-as-free. Something in the open source nature of open source made that $0.00 price tag more appetizing.

Having your code and eating it, too

Dan Martin, Early Warning’s head of APIs, agrees that the issue is more complicated: “Developers want free quality, and open source produces that in abundance.” They don’t want free shareware that is buggy and trite. In other words: they want great software for free. Urlocker concurs: “There is certainly a distinction between ‘free = good to go’ and ‘free = limited functionality so we can upsell you something else,’ like all the 'express' databases.”

Hadoop creator Doug Cutting may have best captured the subtlety of what’s driving developers: “Maybe it's not either/or but rather both together? Folks seem to prefer low-cost software that's easy to debug, maintained by an active community without taking on a contractual dependency on a for-profit company.”

Open source, it turns out, is a great way to deliver fantastic, full-featured software for the bargain price of a download. This isn’t by accident. As open source legal expert Van Lindbergh notes, “Open source gets in the door because it is free. It sticks around because the licenses encourage the growth of communities of interest around the cooperative development of the [intellectual property].” Shareware or freeware, he continues, sport the “same cost of entry” as open source but offer “no community development.”

Do developers want the free-as-in-beer benefits of open source? Absolutely. What they may not explicitly recognize, however, is that the beer only tastes good because the free-as-in-freedom licensing helps to create communities that craft exceptional “beer” in the first place. You can’t have one without the other. Fortunately, in open source land, you can have both. Indeed, you must have both.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.