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12 June 2007

Open source hypocrisy

By Andrew Clifford

I use free and open source software all the time, but I have not open sourced my own products. Am I an open source hypocrite?

Open source software is brilliant.

  • It is free.
  • You can keep up-to-date for free.
  • It is flexible, for example you can ship it for free as part of other products.
  • It is viable, with lots of free support and the option of maintaining the code yourself if you really have to.

My company develops some software products, all based on free and open source software, but we charge a license fee. Are we just cynical freeloaders?

I worry about this from both the moral and commercial viewpoint. But I think that what we do is justified on both counts. Here's why.

Many open source contributors are truly altruistic, and I really admire them for that. For many others, contributing to open source is part of a paid job. It could be that they work for a company that provides services around the software, has a commercial interest in influencing its direction, or has commercial reasons to compete with paid-for software. It could be that they are researchers or academics with salaries or grants. I also admire these contributors for their skill and dedication, and I am sure they work many unpaid hours too. But I don't have a regular salary, and I think that risking my own money on uncertain return is not less moral than being paid a regular salary.

Although it's not a very clear distinction, most major open source software is "tool" rather than "product". There are open source tools for writing, for graphics and for audio, but we would not consider that the books, artwork and music that people produce using them should always be free. The software I produce is part of a broader service, a framework for the long-term management of IT systems, and comes bundled with consultancy materials. Although I use free tools to produce it, my software is very much part of a broader product.

Open source works well for software with a large user base. It does not work well for niche products. I could not go to a potential customer and say that we get unpaid volunteers to develop and support our product. It is much more credible to ask for our (very modest) license fees in return for defined development and support.

From my point of view and that of our customers, we simply could not do what we do as open source. The choice is "proprietary software" versus "no software", not "proprietary software" versus "open source". Of course this could change. As interest in system governance grows, there may be competitive need and practical opportunity to move to an open source model. But it is still a new subject, so we have neither the need nor the opportunity.

It is not for me to judge whether I am a hypocrite. But from my point of view, I do understand why some software is open source, and some is proprietary, and I don't lose sleep over it.

Next: Shift risk management forward


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