Friday, September 9, 2011

Sacrificing gratis for libre

        Gratis and libre can both be interpreted as free. However, there is a difference. Gratis is free as in beer and libre is free as in freedom, to quote the common explanation. Usually a piece of open source software fits both words, but should it?

        Everyone likes to get something for nothing. That's why pricing is one of the most commonly stated benefits of Linux and other free software. Many businesses and individuals turn to open source every year to help them cut down their operating costs. In fact, my first taste of Linux was also for this reason.

         On the other hand, what if our free software tries to force us to do something? Or saves our data in a format other programs can't read? Or if you want to port it to a different platform and the license forbids it?

        That's where libre comes in. Everyone has the right to use, modify and redistribute the software. If you are a developer, you can fix bugs that the manufacturer doesn't have time for, add new features and more. If you aren't, you can reap the rewards of other people's changes or hire a developer to make the changes for you.

        So far it sounds like a win-win. However, what if a free software project runs out of money? Unlike commercial software, it isn't the amount of users that matters, it's the amount of contributors. If everyone downloads it but no one donates, the project will fail and people will have to start using a different program. Perhaps one that isn't open source.

        As the title suggests, that is when we have to make a decision. Is getting something for nothing more important than being free to use your software in any way you choose? In my opinion, no. It's better to pay for freedom than use closed source for free.

        What are our options then? The project could charge a fee for the support contract like Red Hat does, they could only charge for commercial use, or they have some kind of shareware type agreement.

Of course, all that would be unnecessary if we, the users, would do our part voluntarily. The next time you open Firefox, go ahead and make a contribution. When you upgrade your distribution to the next version, take the time to send it's provider a donation. Remember, every little bit helps.

Otherwise, you may find yourself purchasing your next update or having to find a new project.