[sf-lug] Free software talk
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
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, 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 Apache httpd
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"
> 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
Do San Mateo businesspeople actually care about this detailed history of
what happened ten years ago, at a company that no longer has any
There are a number of tiny inaccuracies in your summary, but it probably
> 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
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
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
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.)
 Sometimes called "academic" licences -- but with the problem that
the latter term is confusing because it is often used to mean other
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