[sf-lug] Free software talk

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Thu Dec 18 22:14:58 PST 2008

Taking another swing at suggestions for David Sterry's FAQ:

Q:  If I make a change and improve the software, can I charge for it?

A:  Yes, you have an absolute right to sell any software you receive
under any 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.

Also, some free-software licences give users who've lawfully received a 
copy of the version you're selling (either by buying it from you or in
any other way) the right to require you to furnish matching source code.
Typically, you may charge only a nominal fee to cover your cost of
furnishing source code.  (This is distinct from your freedom to charge
whatever the market will bear for the software itself.)

Q:  But that's [source code access is] a license right?

A:  Depends on the free-software licence.  Examples:  1.  With a
BSD-licensed work, you have no obligation to furnish source code, which
is part of why that's called a "permissive" licence.  2.  With a
GPL-licensed work you have distributed/redistributed, you _are_ obliged
(for a time) to provide users full source code upon request.
(You can charge a reasonable fee to cover for your costs.)  The fact
that GPL guarantees users the right to _full_ matching source code is
why GPL is called a "strong copyleft" licence.  3.  With an MPL-licensed
work, you are obliged (for a time) to provide users matching source code of
MPL-covered code modules that you've modified (only) upon request, but
not modules under other licences.  The fact that MPL guarantees users
the right only to source code of MPL-covered code modules is why MPL is
called a "weak copyleft" licence.

Q:  Is Firefox done by a company? 

A:  Firefox is published by the Mozilla Foundation, which pays the
salaries of some Firefox programmers, and by outside programmers who are
not on Mozilla Foundation's staff.  It is a figurative great-grandchild
of Netscape Corporation's browser code re-released as free software in
March 1998.

Q:  If you make a change to free software you have to contribute those
changes back to the originator of the program right?

A:  1. If your change is private (you didn't distribute it to others, or 
make it available for public use, e.g., over the Internet), then it's
nobody's business but yours.  2.  If your change is public but the
code's under a permissive licence (such as BSD), then again you have no
obligation to contribute back changes to the originator or to anyone
else.  3.  If your change is public because you distributed it, and the
code's under a copyleft licence (GPL, MPL, others), then you'll have an
obligation under that licence to provide matching code for a time to any
third party who lawfully received your modified version and asks for
source.  (You'll have no obligation to send anything whatsoever to the
original developer unless/until he/she comes by a copy of your work and
requests source.)  4.  If your change is public because you made it
publicly usable albeit you never distributed it (e.g., you offered
public access to a copy running on an Internet application server), and
the code's under one of several copyleft licences with an "ASP clause"
(application service provider), then you'll have an obligation under
that licence to provide matching code for a time to any third party
who has used your application.

Q:  Why would someone create software for free?

A:  Among the known reasons:

o  Personal satisfaction, and "scratching an itch" (satisfying the 
   original developer's own needs).
o  Enhanced reputation for the original coder.
o  Lowering / sharing developments costs and sharing risks of future
   unmaintainability, by providing a platform for participation by 
   outside developers.
o  Establishing a reliable shared codebase (a standard) attractive to other
   users (or in some cases competitors) as a foundation for further
o  Improved code review/QA, and consequently in general better 
   quality and security, in most usage scenarios.  Greater 
   public confidence in the code's quality, longevity, security,
   and maintainability, as a result, is sometimes of
   direct benefit to the original coder in various ways.
o  Commoditising an application category, to deprive a 
   competitor of an advantage in that area.
o  Serving as a tantalising glimpse of useful software to customers, in a 
   state that makes it fully inspectable but unavailable to competitors
   to incorporate into proprietary offerings.  (The software's copyright 
   owner can make a public instance of the code inspectable under 
   copyleft terms, and a separate instance of that code available
   under proprietary licensing terms for money.  The former feeds 
   sales of the latter.)
It should be noted that, common belief notwithstanding, the vast
majority of all software coded -- approximately 95% -- has always been
business-process software produced internally to companies.
Shrink-wrapped software sold to its users has always been very much the

That vast majority of software that is business-process software (except
in rare cases of it embodying business secrets) should logically be
developed under free-software conditions, if no software:   That
software has negligible sales value but immense usage value, and its
cost can be greatly lowered and it effectiveness greatly improved by
opening up its development model, better recognising the reality that
most software is fundamentally a service business, not a product one.

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