Paying for Software

Written By: Jake Bauer | Posted: 2020-05-25 | Last Updated: 2020-05-25

This post is inspired by a recent discussion I had on Mastodon.

Most of the world now runs on free software; that’s free as in freedom, not necessarily free as in beer. It seems though, that many people conflate the two meanings and expect free and open source software to also come free of charge. This is despite none of the widely accepted free and open source software licenses including a non-commercial clause. In fact, the GPL (section 6) explicitly includes language which would allow one make money off of one’s software while still keeping it free and open source.

It is also often brought up that Big Tech tends to use free and open source software in their own products, which they then proceed to sell, and that this is effectively commercial entities using the work of volunteers for their own profit often without giving back code improvements or otherwise contributing to the software. Some notable exceptions such as the Linux kernel exist, but it seems that developers of a lot of software, such as OpenSSL and GNUPG (news article links), which are used by multi-billion-dollar companies and critical to our digital infrastructure, typically have to wait until they’re in a funding crisis to get the money they desperately need to keep developing and maintaining their software.

This is an unsustainable model for many of the services and software on which we rely. Many developers work in their free time for the sole reason that they enjoy making software; most don’t make enough off of donations to leave their day jobs and develop free and open source software full-time. This is why projects such as ElementaryOS try to push their users into paying for the operating system they download and why they are trying to build an app store which encourages the exchange of money for software.

I try to give back to developers (and artists, but perhaps that’s a discussion for a different blog post) as much as I possibly can. For example, I spend $2 USD per month for SourceHut, I have a $3.50 USD per month LWN.net subscription, I donate $3.50 CAD per month to Wikipedia and $25 per year to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and, before I self-hosted my email, I didn’t hesitate to pay ProtonMail for those services either. Now that I am self-hosting, I plan to donate $20 CAD to the creator of OpenSMTPD which is a core part of that infrastructure.

Depending on your financial situation, it may not be viable to donate or pay a lot and that is totally okay. Being a student, I am very cautious with my money and so I tend not to give vast amounts, but if everyone gave $2 per month (the price of a cup of coffee at a café) or even a larger, one-time donation to the free software projects they use the most, it would make a huge difference. My personal bias is towards prioritizing donations to not-for-profits and development teams which largely or entirely rely on dontations or the proceeds from people paying for an otherwise free service.

If you really can’t afford to give anything, that’s alright. Not everyone can. Something else you could do is send an email to the developer(s) thanking them for the work that they do. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a huge confidence boost when someone praises something you do and it can greatly help morale.

Essentially, the point is: don’t be so quick to recoil at the thought of having to pay for free and open source software. Making free and open source software is a lot of work which many developers do out of the kindness of their hearts and it’s reasonable that they deserve compensation for their efforts. GitHub has taken steps to improve the situation with their sponsorship program, but I think that a fundamental culture shift has to occur where people become more comfortable rewarding free and open source developers for their time and effort for this model to become truly sustainable.

This is my twenty-eighth post for the #100DaysToOffload challenge. You can learn more about this challenge over at https://100daystooffload.com.