Open source means surrendering your monopoly over commercial exploitation January 20, 2021 on Drew DeVault's blog

Participation in open source requires you to surrender your monopoly over commercial exploitation. This is a profound point about free and open source software which seems to be causing a lot of companies to struggle with their understanding of the philosophy of FOSS, and it’s worth addressing on its own. It has been apparent for some years now that FOSS is eating the software world, and corporations are trying to figure out their relationship with it. One fact that you will have to confront in this position is that you cannot monopolize the commercial potential of free and open source software.

The term “open source” is broadly accepted as being defined by the Open Source Definition, and its very first requirement is the following:

[The distribution terms of open-source software] shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

That covers the “OSS” in “FOSS”. The “F” refers to “free software”, and is covered by this Free Software Foundation resource:

[A program is free software if the program’s users have] the freedom to run the program as they wish, for any purpose, [… and to …] redistribute copies.

It further clarifies the commercial aspect of this freedom explicitly:

“Free software” does not mean “noncommercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. […] Regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, [and] to sell copies.

This is an essential, non-negotiable requirement of free and open-source software, and a reality you must face if you want to reap the benefits of the FOSS ecosystem. Anyone can monetize your code. That includes you, and me, all of your contributors, your competitors, Amazon and Google, and everyone else. This is a rejection of how intellectual property typically works — copyright laws exist for the express purpose of creating an artificial monopoly for your business, and FOSS licenses exist for the express purpose of breaking it. If you’re new to FOSS, it is going to be totally alien to your understanding of IP ownership.

It’s quite common for people other than you to make money from your free and open source software works. Some will incorporate them into their own products to sell, some will develop an expertise with it and sell their skills as a consultant, some will re-package it in an easy-to-use fashion and charge people for the service. Others might come up with even more creative ways to monetize the software, like writing books about it. It will create wealth for everyone, not just the original authors. And if you want it to create wealth for you, you are responsible for figuring out how. Building a business requires more work than just writing the software.

This makes sense in terms of karmic justice, as it were. One of the most important advantages of making your software FOSS is that the global community can contribute improvements back to it. The software becomes more than your organization can make it alone, both through direct contributions to your code, and through the community which blossoms around it. If the sum of its value is no longer entirely accountable to your organization, is it not fair that the commercial exploitation of that value shouldn’t be entirely captured by your organization, either? This is the deal that you make when you choose FOSS.

There are ways that you can influence how others use your FOSS software, mainly having to do with making sure that everyone else keeps this same promise. You cannot stop someone from making money from your software, but you can obligate them to share their improvements with everyone else, which you can incorporate back into the original product to make it more compelling for everyone. The GPL family of licenses is designed for this purpose.1

Furthermore, if your business is a consumer of free and open source software, rather than a producer, you need to be aware that you may be subject to those obligations. It’s not a free lunch: you may be required to return your improvements to the community. FOSS licenses are important, and you should make it your business to understand them, both as a user, contributor, and author of free and open source software.

FOSS is eating the world, and it’s a very attractive choice for businesses for a good reason. This is the reason. It increases wealth for everyone. Capitalism concerns itself with making monopolies — FOSS instead concerns itself with the socialized creation of software wealth.

  1. If you want a brief introduction to GPL licenses, I have written a short guide for SourceHut users↩︎

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