Open Source software has nothing to do with communism, and it is not free either

This line caught my eye (and I have no idea how I got there in the first place):

Open source just looks like the future to me. Who would’ve thought, but it is pure communism! If people are willing to give such sophisticated solutions away for free, businesses are going to adopt them and there’s no way commercial products will be able to compete.

There is so much wrong with those sentences that I need to let this rant out or I won’t sleep tonight. :-)

First there is the assumption (which is repeated several times in that article) that open source software is ‘free’. Wrong.  Open source means that the source is publicly available. It has nothing to do with pricing. And, even though you can download software without paying for it, using that software is not necessarily free. You need to take into account what the cost of things like maintenance, education and customization are, and heck, you might even end up paying more for using open source software than would for using proprietary software.

More disturbing is his use of the word: ‘communism’. Communism is classless – at least in theory. Open source software is not classless, not in theory nor in practice.  Open source software has nothing to do with project organization. But if you’d had to say something about it, you could say that many open source projects are meritocratic and community driven. People are encouraged to participate, and it is this shared effort that often makes projects great, but people earn official positions (i.e. get commit and voting rights) through demonstrated talent and competence.

Also, for an open source project to reach adulthood, it typically needs lots of input (bug reports, feature requests, patches, discussions, promotion) from hundreds or even thousands of users. But ultimately the project owners decide what to do with that success, as they have got the legal and physical rights (access to servers etc) to do so. Regular users can suggest and complain or they can even branch the source code (in which case they could run into trouble with the license) into a new project, but usually have no final say in the project. Hence, the ownership of the means of production lies in the hands of a few, which is contrary to the communist ideal.

For the companies that I worked for, cost was hardly a decisive factor when evaluating open source vs proprietary software products (except for choosing MySQL maybe). Not being dependent on a single vendor for bug fixes, the often better quality of open source projects (coded by motivated professionals, peer review, many test hours, transparency) and the option of having a say in the direction the software is going, are often more important.

9 thoughts on “Open Source software has nothing to do with communism, and it is not free either

  1. Wille says:

    Open source, when applied in a business sense is the antithesis of communism: it is hypercompetition and close to a perfect, efficient market, in they way that it drives down prices and lowers barriers of entry.

    (Side note: a hallmark of an efficient market is that profits and margins dwindle, which in software terms means that open source makes it almost impossible for proprietary software to make the astronomic profits they used to).

  2. […] January 19, 2008 Posted by Wille in Investing & Economics, Software Development. trackback Eelco Hillenius brought someone elses claims of “Open source being communism” to my attention. As […]

  3. […] Open Source software has nothing to do with communism, and it is not free either « Chillenious! Pessoal, open source e free software são coisas distintas, ok? (tags: oss) […]

  4. Jack says:

    Wow…yea that statement warrants a harsh reply and a firm kick to the nuts.
    However, because I’m feeling constructive, I will let him off with some *free* advice on how to be less of a jackass.

    1. Never use an exclamation point (!) ever again. You are too stupid to be that sure about anything.
    2. Do not exercise your right to vote…ever. You will end up voting for a Communist or Hilary Clinton, I guarantee it.

  5. Wille says:

    You will end up voting for a Communist or Hilary Clinton, I guarantee it.
    There’s a difference? :D

    Nah, just joking, and no, I’m not a partisan hack either (the other “team” is just as bad)..

  6. Someone says:

    Open source is good for projects, not for products. Its good if you need to find something, maybe even just examine a technique someone used. Its good if you can offer to sell training on a platform you’ve developed because its hot and new.

    But in the end it seems like a futile exercise in doing something for nothing. If its educational, great. But if you create something that everyone uses and you don’t or can’t actively seek credit – simply because of how its distributed – well, fine by me I guess.

    Kudos and pats on the back are nice, but really. Its the most useful code that ultimately will be copied the most and taken for granted if its free. It will wind its way into a commercial product.

    Its the entrepreneur and aggregator that will hire a bunch of uninspired developers to port all the open source code they can find into a meaningful and marketable package, anyway. In that sense, open source has its own built in throttle.

  7. someone else says:

    I downloaded Gimp and have use it for a while now. Every time I needed “support” , I used google and there was the answer. Granted I am not a
    professional graphics artist and I am not using Gimp to build the next MRI imaging system. But my point is that I didn’t need to contact the Gimp team and buy support. Without Gimp I would need to buy a copy from someone. I am a software developer myself. If someone was to subsidize my projects as they do in Euro or If was a student getting credit for open source projects which later I can use on my resume so that later I can get a job with a “closed source company” maybe I would be willing to write free software

  8. Anonymous coward (or: ‘Someone’),

    The distinction between ‘product’ and ‘project’ is vague, but I think I understand what you mean. And I disagree.

    You have to understand what drives developers involved in open source projects/ products. Their typical motivation* is to solve problems they need solved for their paying day jobs (typically referred to as ‘scratch their itch’). When they think they have a better solution to a problem, they create their own projects (or products), or when they find a solution they really like, they might get involved with an existing one. Such developers are very rarely motivated by directly making money off the project, but rather by the fact that by creating or joining projects, they can better steer the outcomes. Successful open source projects have thousands of users, each potentially contributing a large number of testing hours and testing corner cases (since those users will use the software in their own ways).

    Among the strongest arguments for using open source software is that it makes companies less dependent on specific vendors. When using open source software, one can thoroughly analyze the software for potential problems and react quickly in case of emergencies. Open source software is more often than not motivated as a form of self-help, rarely is it written with the intention to directly make money of it. Which doesn’t make it communistic as I tried to explain in the article.

    * A variety of studies showed this, and it is also my own motivation and the motivation of all colleague open source developers I personally know.

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