Missing the Point of Free Software

I have come across various myths about free and open source software or as some call it FOSS. Some of the more prevalent are:

  • FOSS is gratis and it is not FOSS if it is not gratis
  • It is not FOSS if it has a Cathedral development process
  • Creators and maintainers are obligated to include user patches in upstream source tree
  • Creators and maintainers are obligated to provide gratis support to all users on the users' schedule
  • Copyleft code is free software and permissively licensed code is not
  • Free software begins and ends at Linux or GNU (to some extent)

To some extent the success of Red Hat has reduced the myth that FOSS is gratis but it is still widespread. The moment a project tries to make money from a FOSS project its users balk at having to pay for it. Some recent and well publicized examples are Ubuntu and Elementary OS when they asked users to compensate the projects monetarily. Linux Mint also copped a bashing for its actions regarding the default search engine.

A FOSS project does not necessarily have to give a place on the table to "outsiders". In other words, a Bazaar project is as much FOSS as a Cathedral. Throwing code over the wall - as it may sometimes be colloquially referred - falls perfectly within the four freedoms outlined by FSF. The idea of community around a FOSS project is an implementation detail; one that works better than any other way to develop software but not an inherent property of something being FOSS or not.

I was in the Linux camp for more than eight years. I bought into the copyleft movement as being the only ethical option for developing and distributing software. I was introduced to permissively licensed software through Python, Django, pfSense and finally FreeBSD. These are all successful projects in their own right and all of them are free software. Being copyleft is no guarantee of being successful and it is not the only option for being free software.

The point of free software (or FOSS) is to give us - the users - the right to modify and/or distribute it. Those who give us the software are not obligated to maintain, support, or even give it away for zero compensation. This is the entire reason forks must be encouraged. In fact, I interpret FOSS to be an ecosystem of distributed forks. Collaboration results in higher quality and portable/reusable software but we should not limit the methods of producing free software to a few misconceptions.

Finally, the best way to contribute to FOSS is to advocate for it, to pay for it, to provide value to projects you use, and to fork it.