[sf-lug] Free software talk

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Thu Dec 18 11:08:55 PST 2008

Quoting David Sterry (david at sterryit.com):

> I just had the opportunity to talk to about 25 small business owners in
> San Mateo about free software.

Hey, thanks for doing that.

> If I make a change and improve the software, can I charge for it?
> Yes. You can but it's not the same sort of charge as what Microsoft
> would do. Here you could charge for distribution but you would still
> have to give people the source code so they could make changes if they
> choose.

1.  Not all free-software licences include a guaranteed right to acquire
the source code from any particular person.  "Giveback" clauses are
found in copyleft licences, but not permissive ones.

(Free licences divide into copyleft and permissive[1], e.g., GPL and

2.  Saying "it's not the same sort of charge as what Microsoft would do"
isn't very enlightening, anyway.  Money is money.  Here's my effort at
answering that question:

Yes, you have an absolute right to sell any software you receive under a
free-software licence, with or without improvements, to any party, for
any price you can get.  However, anyone else possessing a copy of the code
also has the right to compete with you.

Receiving code under any licence (free-software _or_ proprietary) requires
you to agree to specific obligations.  More about that below.

> Yes, well free software is protected by the main license called the
> GPL, the GNU Public License but it's not the same sort of license as
> what Microsoft would do. Their license for Office says you can have a
> student and home version or you can have a commercial version. 

Sorry, this is inaccurate.  _Some_ free software is made available under
GNU GPL terms.  Other free software is under a variety of other
licences.  Here are a few of the non-GPL codebases you probably care
about quite a bit:

o  Firefox
o  Thunderbird
o  OpenOffice.org
o  Apache httpd
o  Pine/Alpine
o  sendmail

I would not use the term "protected", as it's confusing in this context.
(Like, with karate chops?  What does it mean for a licence to "protect"
a codebase?)

> Is Firefox done by a company? 
> Well Firefox started as an offshoot of netscape. You remeber when
> Netscape was the king of browsers? Well they had pretty much made a
> copy of the mozilla code or whatever and they were ahead of course.
> Then Microsoft poured a huge amount of resources into Internet
> Explorer and became #1. Well at that time, Netscape released the
> source for their browser so anyone could work on it and people took
> that and turned it into firefox. Over time it has grown into a real
> contender.

Do San Mateo businesspeople actually care about this detailed history of
what happened ten years ago, at a company that no longer has any
separate existence?

There are a number of tiny inaccuracies in your summary, but it probably
doesn't matter.

> If you make a change to free software you have to contribute those
> changes back to the originator of the program right?
> Technically, you don't have to but it's a best practice. 
Sorry, but this is inaccurate on a number of levels.  First, by no means
do all free-software licences include any kind of giveback clause.
Don't forget, there are two major branches of such licences, copyleft
and permissive.  Copyleft licences have giveback clauses; permissive
ones don't.

Second, no free-software licence says you must send your changes
specifically to the _originator_.  Copyleft licences typically say you
must, _if_ you have done particular things with the code, make your
changes available to any third party who has lawfully received a copy of
your work.

Third, no free-software licence imposes any such obligation merely
because you have _made changes_ and done nothing else with it.  Copyleft
licences tend to impose that obligation only if you have _distributed_
your modified version to others, or in some cases if you've deployed it
for public use even if you haven't distributed it.

> Why would someone create software for free?
> The best answer I can posit for this is to liken it to music.

There are quite a number of other reasons that commonly apply.

The Open Source Initiative has written up a number of the most common
reasons:  http://www.opensource.org/advocacy/case_for_business.php
That document also describes a number of categories of business models
in which use of free software makes sense.

Eric Raymond has also addressed that issue:

(OSI and Raymond use the term "open source".  This is a different term
for "free software", using a different marketing emphasis, but denotes
the same licensing and code.)

[1] Sometimes called "academic" licences -- but with the problem that
the latter term is confusing because it is often used to mean other
things entirely.

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