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FOSS and the Freeloader Factor

By Katherine Noyes
Jul 11, 2011 5:00 AM PT

It was almost exactly two years ago that Linux bloggers were bemoaning organizational FOSS users' tendency not to give back to the community, and now -- fast forward to 2011 -- here we are again, facing the same fact.

FOSS and the Freeloader Factor

Spurred once again by a discussion originating in the Eclipse community -- the results of the Eclipse Foundation's 2011 Community Survey, this time around -- bloggers have been wrestling not just with the reality of inconsistent enterprise-user contributions to FOSS, but also whether it really matters.

"If usage of open source software is becoming more accepted in the business community, but contributions from such businesses are absent in many cases, that is a bad trend," wrote Sam Dean over at OStatic, for example. "The trend may call for a unified effort from the open source community to call for development contributions from the increasing number of organizations benefiting from open source projects."

Does It Matter?

It should be noted that the news about user contributions wasn't all bad -- there were, in fact, some encouraging trends.

Nevertheless, a few weeks later, OStatic's Dean followed up with another post pondering the real import of the problem.

"According to some observers, the disparity between using and contributing doesn't matter," Dean wrote before citing several examples of just that opinion.

Intrigued not just by the question but by its years-long persistence, Linux Girl couldn't resist opening it up to the crowds down at the blogosphere's Broken Windows Lounge. Specifically, is the "freeloader factor" something we should be worrying about?

'Definitely a Bad Thing!'

"To be fair, the study doesn't show that there are less people giving back to open source projects -- it simply says there are now more people freeloading," Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland told Linux Girl. "This means that while the percentage of people giving back is lower, odds are the total number of people contributing back to FOSS has increased."

Semantics aside, however, "large companies (and individuals) that use open source projects without giving anything back is definitely a bad thing!" Hoogland added. "Even if users would donate half (or heck, even a quarter) of what they would be paying for a piece of commercial software to FOSS developers, it would go a long way."

Those who can't spare any actual cash can donate time, he pointed out.

"Speaking as someone who runs a small open source project, I can tell you there are always jobs that need doing -- from programming to documentation writing," Hoogland concluded.

'Why Shouldn't They Give Back?'

Similarly: "Does it matter? YES with a capital Y!" agreed Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. "Linux HAS TO HAVE good devs to survive! It ain't some basement coder that is fixing the bugs, doing the QA, seriously improving the system; despite popular mythos, it is top o' the line developers, either working for a corp like RH or doing it on their own to scratch an itch."

The GPL "needs to be replaced with 'free for noncommercial use' so that the hackers can still have a 'free as in beer' OS to hack on, the poor can also have a free OS, but those corps that are actually making money on Linux will HAVE TO contribute some of their profits back into the community," hairyfeet opined. "This is only fair and just, as many of these companies wouldn't be enjoying their massive profits if it wasn't for Linux. Why shouldn't they give back?"

If Red Hat got just US$10 for every copy of CentOS used on a production machine, for example, or if Canonical got $10 for every Ubuntu workstation or server in business, "the amount of money they would have would allow REAL innovation, REAL bug fixing, REAL QA, and -- most importantly -- allow FOSS companies to increase their hiring of devs, which equals more and better code for all of us."

'Not Everyone Has Acres to Plow'

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site, saw it differently.

"Change 'open source software' to anything else, and the problem goes away," Hudson pointed out. "I don't think anyone's losing sleep over the fact that 'the largest single category is people who consume food, but do not produce any.' Not everyone can slaughter a goat or has a couple of acres to plow."

There will "always be more consumers than producers of any commodity, good or service," she explained. "Modern economies are based on the concept that not everyone can or should do everything."

We trade goods and services, in other words.

With respect to open source software, "the criticism of not 'giving back,' or upholding your end of the trade, really has to be viewed from two different contexts," Hudson suggested.

'It Doesn't Really Matter'

"In the more common case, there are companies that are not in the software business; they use open source products, perhaps with a few modifications, to handle the 'computer stuff,'" she pointed out. "We generally wouldn't expect them to be contributing much back; most of what they could give back wouldn't be relevant to anyone else -- not even their closest competitor -- because of different business processes or regulatory environments."

Then there are the companies that "not only use open source software to run their business -- it IS their business," Hudson added. "We would expect them to not only have more to contribute back, but that their contributions would be of more relevance to the community as a whole."

Canonical, however, provides an immediate counter-example, she noted.

"Their primary product is Ubuntu, which they claim is the most popular distro," Hudson pointed out. "Yet the number of lines of code Canonical contributes to linux, at 0.2 percent, means there are 64 other companies and individuals who have 'given back' more kernel code."

Bottom line? "While it's valid to beef about asymmetrical, it doesn't really matter," Hudson concluded. "The beauty of software is that, unlike other 'manual labor' (ouch!), you don't need to double the number of laborers when you double the number of consumers."

'Most Users Don't Contribute Back'

Indeed, "I don't think it is a problem," agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

"The cold fact is that most users of open source don't contribute back," Travers explained. "As projects mature, the percentage of users that contribute goes down even further. As open source software becomes mainstream, we will see more users who don't get it, and more users who don't benefit directly from contributing back."

Together, such trends "mean that the ratio of users to contributors goes down," he explained. "At the same time, the number of contributors usually goes up, which is also a good thing."

In other words, "the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same," Travers concluded.

'There Are Still Benefits to FOSS'

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack accentuated the positive side.

"Even if people don't contribute directly, there are still side benefits to FOSS from bug reports and money not going into the hands of people who would use it to fund lobbyists and patent attacks," Mack pointed out.

Essentially, "the FLOSSy ecosystem is like an economy," blogger Robert Pogson suggested. "Supply and demand influences production and investment in FLOSS."

'FLOSS Will Thrive'

Organizations that find what they need in FOSS "may not be doing modifications that they can give back," he explained, but "they still need to consider investing in FLOSS to keep software coming."

Conversely, "organizations that find something they need is lacking in FLOSS should invest in hiring programmers to fill that need," he opined. "There is a huge advantage to using FLOSS in that most of the infrastructure exists, and the cost of developing some new feature or package is limited. It is often much less than paying for software licenses."

In the end, "there will be many organizations that do not give back to FLOSS, and that is OK," Pogson concluded. "As long as enough users give back to keep the software coming, FLOSS will thrive."

How do you feel about government regulation of the U.S. tech industry?
Big tech companies are abusing their monopoly power and must be reined in.
Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
Regulations stifle innovation and should be kept to the barest minimum.
Over-regulation could give China and other nations an unfair advantage.
Outdated antitrust laws should be updated prior to serious regulatory efforts.
Tech companies should regulate themselves to avoid government intervention.
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