Where’s the Money in Free Software? – Computerphile

Where’s the Money in Free Software? – Computerphile


So most people make their money from… uh not writing boxed applications but actually writing custom software and making kind of improvements to software, and fixing software for other people. And actually free software is a wonderful place to do that kind of work. I’ve been doing free software for a long time. Previously I worked… uh… way, way back now… 10 years ago in NHS IT. It’s the National Health Service IT project based in Leeds, in the UK. And my job there was really to maintain… um… some free software we were using to power our website. So we had… um… a thing called Plone. And we were using Apache and Linux and GNU and Debian And all these other things to kind of make this thing happen. So my job was primarily to make sure that kept working to add features to it, to add new functionality and to kind of maintain it. And so I was paid to do that job And I left there, went to the University of Manchester, And had a job that also paid me to make and maintain free software. And there’s kind of an overriding pattern here, where I did that for a lot of my jobs. At the free software foundation, my job was more focused on campaigning. I was the masterhead behind some campaigns like Defective by Design, Windows 7 Sins, PlayOgg for a coupla years. So I would write articles and I would do a lot of editorial-type work on those things. But at the same time, maintaining my own free software projects… uh… in my spare time. And now I’m at Creative Commons, and Creative Commons – surprise, surprise – pays me to uh… look after free software projects and to maintain and write free software. And so, um, if you would like to work in this kind of field, I would suggest you… become reasonably good at programming, you know your licenses, know your background and kind of have a… strong desire to make free software a reality and people need free software developers. Um, WordPress is a great example of a very, very common piece of free software, that’s not going away anytime soon. People will always need people to write plugins, help the people, be supportive Um, write themes, write add-ons for WordPress And if you’re really good at free software development, then you can even, y’know, work on WordPress itself! Y’know WordPress is a community project, too, so people need… The people who work on WordPress are volunteers, primarily in their spare time. But, some of them also work for the company behind WordPress. And so I think… the very best WordPress developers in the world get the opportunity to work, full-time, as their paid job on WordPress. You have to start somewhere, you don’t just get a job in free software from nowhere, but you can uh… If you already have a job writing programming, doing programming stuff you probably already use some free software tools. See if you can convince your boss to allow you to release your changes out to the world. And if you can, then find the right community and give them the changes back and you could very soon find yourself doing that for a living. [Sean] How does it work in terms of organizing teams of developers to kind of maintain free software. [Matt] The way it really works is that, um… If you are a developer and you enjoy a piece of software, you can be part of its upkeep. So, generally speaking, most software that’s free software is developed in public, using sites like Sourceforge historically or nowadays in things like Gitorious or Github. You can go along, get a copy of the code, find bugs, fix bugs, add new features and kind of push that code, that you’ve made, back to the main development team. In general, what happens is there’s kind of a process whereby You send in a few bugfixes, a few, like, suggestions and then eventually, after a while, they get kinda like, “This guy’s okay we’ll let him into the team.” And then, you become part of that development team. If they use Git, for example, go and check out a copy of the Git code and, make your changes locally, but also, as you make your changes, check those changes into Git. So that you have your own version of that code locally You can kind of back-and-forth through it and kinda see what you did along the way. And when you makes commits to that good Git project make good comments, so you kind of remember what you did. Don’t just leave a one-line, sarcastic response, which is what I often do. Try and leave good comments and that way you’ll kind of be able to go back in time and see what you did. And then when ultimately, when you eventually get those changes adopted by the big community project, they’ll be able to see the same thing you can see they’ll be able to see what you did. And so, it’s not so important to structure your code super-well because, as long as you kind of make it work and you make good comments then that can be cleaned up afterwards. Look at companies like MySQL and redhat, and they’ve made lots and lots of money from doing free software stuff. So, you would definitely [Sean] Canonical are one one of those are they as well? [Matt] Canonical does have teams developing certain pieces of free software. I think the difference between Canonical and redhat is that redhat develops software that’s generally widely used by all the free software users, like Gnome Desktop and other things whereas I think what Canonical does is a different model and they actually develop kinda their own free software. They release it as free software but it’s mostly used for the Ubuntu community and the Ubuntu users. It’s not so widely used outside of Ubuntu. That’s not an unreasonable thing that’s a, y’know, perfectly valid way to create software, y’know. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping the teams at redhat and other companies and other organizations from taking the Canonical code and reusing it for other things. y’know, so… If you are gonna take code from other projects, and you can of course do that, then you make sure that the code you take is under a license that works with the license of the project you’re taking things into. So, for example, if you’re taking code from, um… WordPress, you can’t really take that code and put into a project that not under the GPL. You would have a hard time wrangling that and you would have an even harder time getting your changes taken in by another project because that file would then be under at least partially under the GPL. You should never let that kind of thing dissuade you from taking stuff, because it’s free software, it’s there to be taken but, at the same time, you should just know the obligations that you then have, um, as a developer to kind of make your changes available to people. So that, y’know, when you take your widget from something that’s GPL and you put it on the web, you then have to make sure that people can get the source code to your changes, too; you can’t just uh… [Sean] Is that the share-alike sign? [Matt] That’s the share-alike part of things, exactly, yeah. So if you have companies that for some reason don’t want to use free software, well then, take advantage of them and sell them a copy for 2,000 dollars or 10,000 dollars whatever you can get, but, the same product should be free software at the same time for those of us who are in the community that want to take it and improve it and share it.

98 thoughts to “Where’s the Money in Free Software? – Computerphile”

  1. At last, Computerphile touches on free software!
    Please, make a video about what Free Software means to information security and privacy.

  2. The bit with WordPress and under the GPL is very important. A good example of a project that ignored this and died is Bukkit (http://bukkit.org).

    Bukkit consisted of an API (still up) and an integration of the API named Craftbukkit (DMCAed). Now the API was under the GPL and the integration LGPL. They ignored this and eventually one of the contributors DMCAed CraftBukkit and killed the project.

    Lesson: Respect GPL

  3. I used to develop a lot of software (mainly small tools) and push them into the world for free, it was back when I was still a wage slave.

    Now that I am freelance I noticed that companies want to pay top dollar for the tiny tools I develop. So why should I make the available for free when I can actually get 100-200 euros for a tiny tool that took me a couple of evenings to make?
    Even better is getting a commission to develop something specific. I build what they need (electronic/hardware and.or software) and get paid by the hour (a very good rate). And what they do with the product is up to them, I at least have my money in and can pay the bills and my salary.

    It's all about earning money and providing for the future and with free software that only happens when you sell service contracts and that I hate doing because it a commitment that you can't keep up as a sole proprietor.
     Besides why would someone buy a service contract from me for a product that I did not make? It's nonsensical. People pay top dollar for software that is good and works. Why buy a support contract. It's like taking out extra warranty on an appliance, only a handful of people fall for this up selling trick.

    So keep your source open if you want but let customers pay for your time and effort.

  4. This really should have a followup video explaining in human-terms what the common open-source licenses are, and how it would influence devs. Might be interesting, after all.

  5. I very much appreciate your work as an advocate of free, as in speech, software.  I just wanted to point out that you have a beanie and a beard.  You are being filmed over a freeway underpass.  That's it is very difficult to not remove the thought that the implied sentiment is that free software is equivalent to bearded, vagrant.  I realize this is far from the content you discussed, I just wanted to point out a bit of "darkish" humor the video evokes.

  6. You make it from donations. Of course if the state gets wind of it you have to give up as commercializing will put your hourly rate at below 5cents/hour.

    I personally quite like the freemium model where you have a free (as in beer) version and a premium version (which can ALSO be open source) where some decent people buy a yearly license and a few freeloaders will deride you as shill

  7. Computerphile: How do you protect yourself from hostile takeovers and people patenting your ideas? I have some features that were actually copied by Postbox and Mac (which I don't mind), but how can I prevent them from patenting my ideas and force me to take them out of my own software? As single coder I cannot afford Software patents and do not believe in them.

  8. Thank you guys for making another video on Free Software.  This is a question I also get asked a lot and it will be great to have a video to point people at.

    Also, love the comment at the end of the video about selling companies software and then releasing it under a Free license.

  9. I bought "free software". And I also bought free tutorials.
    I did this voluntarily, and I knew I don't have to pay for it.

  10. I like this guy. But lets be honest, the vast majority of money in free software is on the enterprise side of things – where people are employed to develop what is needed for their job, or they're employed to facilitate high-value contracts. On the consumer and small-business side of things, it's very much a race to the bottom and the vast majority of the developers are volunteering their free time. (I'm someone running a successful Open Source company for 10 years, but I like conversations to really acknowledge how things are)

  11. Thanks for doing this, especially since my comment on the last video triggered some debate.
    I still believe, however, that not all software should be "free software." In particular, games. Many games are not developed by organisations but by small teams or even single people and they deserve to be compensated for their time developing the game and not just post-release support.

  12. Could you add the links on those four episodes in the end of each video to the description section? Because when you watch it on the iPad, there's actually no 'click rectangles' and you cannot click on these previews.
    Thank you a lot! Happy to be your subscriber!

  13. The idea that documentation isn't important and that you can just let someone else document it exposes one of the biggest pitfalls of free software – the idea that documentation is a value-added concept.  It often results in code that is incredibly difficult to actually get working unless you share very similar hardware environments, software environments, user interface expectations, and even experiences as the developer.  I've hit this wall many times with free software, especially in those circumstances I've tried to do something I have little background in, where documentation is most critical.

  14. So, I disagree with one thing: the idea that proprietary software is inherently bad. Did he say this explicitly in the video? No! But if you Google his old projects, you can start to see a trend.

    All software has upsides and downsides. Paid software has MANY downsides, not the least of which is the abstraction of the programming. It's hard to tell exactly (this is the key word) what a program which you are running is doing in most modern operating systems. One way to be sure it is doing exactly what you want is to compile it from the source. You just can't do that with proprietary software.

    And, yeah, that's kind of unnerving. But we already put our faith in some software which is, while not technically proprietary (it's all pretty much open source), does things that the vast majority of users do not understand.

    Basically, it goes back to the old idea of, well, if I can see the source of the code I am reading, I can trust the developer. Well, what if the developer of x compiler inserts malicious code via his software? Oh, okay, that's open source. Let's look at it. Okay, x compiler uses y assembler. What if the developer of y assembler inserts malicious code via his software?

    That can go on and on and on, down to the code that is used to program the CPU directly. At one point along that chain, you have to trust someone. Trust is key to all programming. Unless you want to make your own processor architecture with your own assembler and your own compiler, you have to eventually trust someone.

    The same is essentially true for paid software. You are basically paying for software and an assurance that said software is free of malicious code. What keeps Microsoft, Apple, or Canonical from stealing your data and selling it to their highest bidder?

    Only the knowledge that, should they steal said data (from unwitting and/or unwilling users), and someone were to find out about it, they would spend the rest of the company's lifetime in court. You can win a case against one user, but can you win a class-action lawsuit against literally every user you have? No. Even the most of pessimistic views of the current legal systems in the world just can't reconcile that kind of upset.

    Is it a perfect system? No.

    But, to be frank, there is no perfect system when it comes to this kind of industry. Any system which relies on trust is vulnerable. I trust Microsoft enough to use Windows, and you should too. Why? It provides a single, unified target for development, as opposed to the (open source and much-varied) targets in the Linux world.

    To clarify, that is not to say that Linux does not have its uses. I, personally, do almost all of my school work and programming projects on Ubuntu or CentOS. But, when it comes to projects like video games, which require vast libraries of files that have to work together near-flawlessly, a unified, if proprietary, system is ideal.

    Just as there is never a single best option in software development and monetization, there is never a single best option in software choice.

    EDIT: And to clarify, this is not based exactly on what he said in the video. I have just had a long-standing beef with anyone who claims that free software is objectively better in all respects to proprietary software, as that is patently untrue. I actually agree with nearly everything he said in the video, or, at least, nothing stood out to me that I disagreed with particularly.

  15. Do donations generally give a reasonable income? If you make apps, add-ons or other kinds of software, or any kind of product or service for that matter, for free but announce that you are willing to take donations, will people generally pay? Any thoughts or experiences about this?

  16. "You should know! you should know! "how do I know! ….
    Many of those legal stuff are confusing and most of the time misleading. 

  17. I was impressed by how he explained, without a trace of irony, that employers are willing to pay you to work on free software. I bet he thinks Adam Smith is a programmer that works at Mozilla.

  18. My vision is simple: "make your customers always pay for your product." And whether you keep it open source or not is another discussion, I would not mind keeping it open source but not under the GPL preferably the BSD license which is far better suited for commercial usage.

    And when that application generates data that is useful for a lot of people collect that data and sell user rights to that. For example with the radiation-watch, I asked why they don't collect this data and charge a little fee to it when you want more than 2 queries a day. This data is viable when enough people contribute to it for so many companies. Data is (google has proven) is just as viable as products.

  19. I honestly think the cameraman (Brady?) made a mistake in exposing so far to the right.
    The image is far too bright, even with the grading. There's even some visible noise in his clothing(the darkest area of the image).

  20. I think that free software is very important in maintaining improvement in software as a whole. Proprietary software coexisting is a good thing (ignoring long copyrights), especially as there's greater monetary incentive for advancing quality if there is free competition.

    I believe that it would be great if sold/rented proprietary and stable "copylefted" software reverted to a zlib style license, 10 and 15 years respectively after that version's release.

    Copyright, copyleft and credit-only.
    Rearguard, vanguard and quartermastery.
    Trains, camels and goods.

  21. Hey Matt Lee, didn't expect to see your face on my YouTube recommendations. It's been a long ting since those Exeter meetups and I work customising free software for people now 🙂

  22. Thankfully there are kind programmers who need a hobby and gladly contribute to projects.
    But free software CAN NOT EXIST without programmers willing to take up the compiler. 🙂

  23. Open source is ok but you'll never get rich at it. Write a great app that customers are willing to pay for and not only do you feel good, you have the potential to get rich. The most important thing to keep in mind is that most customers would rather pay for a product with support than a free application that has little or no support. Most businesses will never employ open source in their enterprise because they depend on reliable customer support.

  24. Why don't you put in your speakers/experts names? You even brag about who filmed it, but what is this gentleman's here name and where can I find him online?

  25. Worst title ever, "wheres the money in free software?" but the whole video and description talks about freedom, "not free as in costs" then why is there money ANYWHERE in the title… whats next? "how to drive a car" but the video shows you how to maintain your car…

  26. it's in the support and customising! because you CAN customise free software, unlike "black box" software, that you just buy and agree to use as dictated by the vendor.

  27. Dude… Nooo your getting confused between Free Software and Open Source!  Red Hat, Canonical are Open Source companies, not Free Software businesses…   Two very different approaches Free Software doesn't have closed (but cost nothing) codecs for example.  Free Software isn't about free as in no cost, it referring to the freedom to achieve what you want on the computer and complete freedom to change the source code. Open Source has the same goal but the approach different, for example an Open Source company can  have software they paid for to make their products better and the software can remain free to the end user, however the element they paid for will not have the source code published and therefore can not be modified, something like an MP3 codec for example.

  28. Love how this is filmed under a bridge.

    Software developers and IT professionals get no respect. If you've ever listened to a conversation of a bunch of IT techies, it's usually one-uppmanship, a pissing contest about who's more clever. Job interviews are based on things completely unrelated to everyday tasks, and appearing "smarter-than-thou" – for example coding a binary search, or doing operations or searches on a tree or other data structure. If anyone on my team would be working on one of those items in real-life, I'd reprimand them for wasting time.

    It's the reason I've moved into management consulting.

  29. You just told us how a single person can make money working on free software: get a job with a free software company.
    That's all nice and well but the real question is how does free software generate profit? I mean, those companies must be getting money from somewhere, otherwise they couldn't pay their employees. 
    Let's take Firefox. Where's Mozilla Foundation getting its money from?

  30. You are cool for sure, but I am developing for a proprietary platform we do use a few free software tools but overall I could never give it out free due to the structure of our security.

  31. I think I'm not the only one who expected something different because this video answers the question were you can make money in free software but not were the money basically "is".

  32. What would you say is the equivalent for software of the Creative Commons non-commercial share-and-share-alike license?

  33. Matt mentions github/git in this video a lot. A general video on version control and what makes git particularly interesting would be so helpful!

  34. Companies around WordPress offer you a totally functional core for free (e.g. WordPress + WooCommerce for a store). You can make any features you like by yourself or buy plugins for extra added features. There are also free and paid versions of plugins, depending on their abilities. Most plugins are under $20. This is how they make money. The whole ecosystem works very well.

  35. This doesn't really seem to explain what the incentive would be to release whatever software a business is working on as free software for public to use and work on. Why would a business do that?

  36. Don't just leave a sarcastic comment. Let's face it. None of my commit messages are ever serious…

  37. Very interesting topic.
    Shame the soundtrack is full of external noises (cars mostly)… (may be clean that up in Audacity or other soft)

  38. All I hear is "work for free" a.k.a. "volunteer" and: "leave a mess – people can clean up afterwards".

  39. Free software today is like: why would you want to use proprietary? If you use proprietary software there is a chance vendors of solutsions would want to vendor lock you in one way or the other….

  40. If I were to publish software, it would be for free, always. I will never ask money for it. I don't want to be paid for it. The reason for this filosophy is this: almost everything in my life that I encounter and I utilize, was given to me for free. For example, the street I walk on, the parks I visit, the electronic devices I take from the garbage, the books I read (free e-books), most of the food I have eaten (considering my parents paid), the car rides I got from friends, the free online courses in any subject I attended, etc, etc, etc. The whole internet (and also real life libraries) is a giant knowledge resource that is accesible for almost free (or totally free if you find free wi-fi). The point is, thousands of websites have accesible information that benefits humanity. Much of the free information has made me who I am. The least I can do is return a favor to the world by making software for free. 🙂

  41. If you write FSF software, the only way to make money is to work in a university supported by the goverments, so you basically you cant make money. 

    As for stallman he makes 5K for every speech at least so he basically never made money from software

  42. for those asking where the money comes from, it comes from one or more of 4 things. 1. Donations from users. 2. Advertisements in the software(most likely in a mobile app). 3. purchases for special stuff/services in the program, often referred to as DLC content in the gaming community. 4. Licenses for use of code

  43. you forgot to include the part about how the money comes from services like PayPal, Patreon, kickstarter, adsense, etc.

    I'm working on a free software and intend to use PayPal for donation purposes where people can donate as much as they want, as many times as they like with no restrictions.

  44. I would like to take this time to remind you all that when you cant work out what is being sold then the thing being sold is YOU!

    Your time, your information, your preferences are valuable – and this is why free software and free media exists.

    -A guy that makes free software.

  45. There is lot and lot of money to make from free software….I just think this fella doesn´t know himself how to make money off of it. Monetizin information of the user? Add-plugins? Selling the code of the program to the company or individual kinks to firms? What is it mate?!

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