Open source software and its use by for-profit companies

Everyone is happy to use free, open source software these days, and for-profit companies are only too happy to join that bandwagon. After all, they’re supporting the open source movement — or are they?

If you’re not sure, there’s an easy litmus test: see how much they contribute to the open source movement.

  • Look at how much they donate to open source. Many companies will make token donations to open source organizations, but let’s face it, that money isn’t going to the developers themselves, it’s going to public relations and ads and the CEOs of those organizations. (Lest we forget, the CEO of Mozilla made $500K/year while the developers made nothing.)
  • Look at how much of their own code (written in-house) they give back to the open source community. If they don’t do much of either, there’s a pretty good chance they’re in it simply to profit off the backs of the many unpaid open source contributors.

After all, companies are more than happy to use free, open source software, since it means they have to do less development themselves, and they don’t have to pay anything at all for that software. But then they charge an arm and a leg for products developed using open-source software. They win, the original developers get screwed, and the customer pays through the nose for something that was free.

I find that sort of a business practice completely hypocritical. Building your business on the backs of malnourished, borderline-healthy geeks, coding their nights away, unpaid is unethical and exploitative. It harks right back to medieval times, when lords would get filthy rich at the expense of poor, overworked serfs. We were supposed to have evolved beyond that, but as it turns out, those sorts of practices haven’t been phased out, they’ve just been sublimated and adapted.

It gets even worse than that. Some companies aren’t content with just using free, open source software to fatten their pockets. They turn around and try to lock the products they’ve built on the free software, and to make it illegal for users of those products to change them. This is quasi-legal and reproachable, because it goes against the original GPL license of that software. You can’t modify open source software by lines of code here and there, and then call that software yours. It’s intellectual theft. This is why I support GPLv3, in spite of the fact that Stallman gives me the willies.

Some developers would argue that they’re writing free software because they want to, and they don’t care if and when they get credit or if they get paid, or even if some ethically questionable company will use their code to make money. They say they’re only interested in writing free code. I say they’re devaluing their work, and when they’ll find themselves without a job, they’ll wish others placed more value on their code.

I don’t need to name specific companies. You just apply this simple litmus test to the big name (or small name) companies out there, and you’ll find them out soon enough.

In the end, a company’s real commitment to the open-source software philosophy can be measured by how much new, internally written code, it contributes back to the open source community.