10.1 Free Beer

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.

While Stallman pushed people away from the notion of "free beer," there's little question that this element turned out to be a very important part of the strategy and a foundation of its success. Stallman insisted that anyone could do what they wanted with the software, so he insisted that the source code must be freely distributed. That is, no one could put any restrictions on how you used the software. While this didn't make it free beer, it did mean that you could turn around and give a copy to your friends or your clients. It was pretty close.

The "free beer" nature of Stallman's software also attracted users. If some programmers wanted to check out a new tool, they could download it and try it out without paying for it. They didn't need to ask their boss for a budget, and they didn't need to figure out a way to deal with an invoice. Just one click and the software was there. Commercial software companies continue to imitate this feature by distributing trial versions that come with either a few crippled features or a time lock that shuts them down after a few days.

Of course, the "free beer" nature of the GNU project soon led to money problems. The GNU project took up his time and generated no real revenues at first. Stallman had always lived frugally. He says that he never made more than $20,000 a year at MIT, and still managed to save on that salary. But he was finding it harder and harder to get his assigned jobs done at MIT and write the cool GNU code. While Stallman always supported a programmer's right to make money for writing code, the GNU project wasn't generating any money.

Most folks saw this conflict coming from the beginning. Sure, Stallman would be able to rant and rave about corporate software development for a bit, but eventually he and his disciples would need to eat.
When the MIT support ended, Stallman soon stumbled upon a surprising fact: he could charge for the software he was giving away and make some money. People loved his software, but it was often hard to keep track of it. Getting the package delivered on computer tape or a CD-ROM gave people a hard copy that they could store for future reference or backup. Online manuals were also nice, but the printed book is still a very popular and easy-to-use way of storing information. Stallman's Free Software Foundation began selling printed manuals, tapes, and then CD-ROMs filled with software to make money. Surprisingly, people started paying money for these versions despite the fact that they could download the same versions for free.

Some folks enjoyed pointing out the hypocrisy in Stallman's move. Stallman had run his mouth for so long that many programming "sellouts" who worked for corporations savored the irony. At last that weenie had gotten the picture. He was forced to make money to support himself, and he was selling out, too. These cynics didn't get what Stallman was trying to do.

Most of us would have given up at this time. The free software thing seemed like a good idea, but now that the money was running out it was time to get a real job. In writing this book and interviewing some of the famous and not-so-famous free software developers, I found that some were involved in for-profit, not-so-free software development now. Stallman, though, wasn't going to give up his ideals, and his mind started shifting to accommodate this new measure of reality. He decided that it wouldn't be wrong to sell copies of software or even software services as long as you didn't withhold the source code and stomp on anyone's freedom to use the source code as they wished.

Stallman has always been great at splitting hairs and creating Jesuitical distinctions, and this insight was one of his best. At first glance, it looked slightly nutty. If people were free to do anything they wanted with software, they could just give a copy to their friend and their friend would never send money back to Stallman's Free Software Foundation. In fact, someone could buy a copy from Stallman and then start reselling copies to others to undercut Stallman. The Free Software Foundation and the GNU GPL gave them the freedom to do so. It was as if a movie theater sold tickets to a movie, but also posted a big sign near the exit door that said "Hey, it's absolutely okay for you to prop this open so your friends can sneak in without paying."

While this total freedom befuddled most people, it didn't fail. Many paid for tapes or CD-ROM versions because they wanted the convenience. Stallman's versions came with the latest bug fixes and new features. They were the quasi-official versions. Others felt that paying helped support the work so they didn't feel bad about doing it. They liked the FSF and wanted it to produce more code. Others just liked printed books better than electronic documentation. Buying them from Stallman was cheaper than printing them out. Still others paid for the CD-ROMs because they just wanted to support the Free Software Foundation.
Stallman also found other support. The MacArthur Foundation gave him one of their genius grants that paid him a nice salary for five years to do whatever he wanted. Companies like Intel hired him as a consultant and asked him to make sure that some of his software ran on Intel chips. People were quite willing to pay for convenience because even free software didn't do everything that it should.

Stallman also recognized that this freedom introduced a measure of competition. If he could charge for copies, then so could others. The source code would be a vast commonweal, but the means of delivering it would be filled with people struggling to do the best job of distributing the software. It was a pretty hard-core Reaganaut notion for a reputed communist. At the beginning, few bothered to compete with him, but in time all of the GNU code began to be included with computer operating systems. By the time Linus Torvalds wrote his OS, the GNU code was ready to be included.