17. Money

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Everyone who's made it past high school knows that money changes everything. Jobs disappear, love crumbles, and wars begin when money gets tight. Of course, a good number of free source believers aren't out of high school, but they'll figure this out soon enough. Money is just the way that we pay for things we need like food, clothing, housing, and of course newer, bigger, and faster computers.


The concept of money has always been the Achilles heel of the free software world. Everyone quickly realizes the advantages of sharing the source code with everyone else. As they say in the software business, "It's a no-brainer." But figuring out a way to keep the fridge stocked with Jolt Cola confounds some of the best advocates for free software.


Stallman carefully tried to spell out his solution in the GNU Manifesto. He wrote, "There's nothing wrong with wanting pay for work, or seeking to maximize one's income, as long as one does not use means that are destructive. But the means customary in the field of software today are based on destruction.
"Extracting money from users of a program by restricting their use of it is destructive because the restrictions reduce the amount and the way that the program can be used. This reduces the amount of wealth that humanity derives from the program. When there is a deliberate choice to restrict, the harmful consequences are deliberate destruction."


At first glance, Richard Stallman doesn't have to worry too much about making ends meet. MIT gave him an office. He got a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Companies pay him to help port his free software to their platforms. His golden reputation combined with a frugal lifestyle means that he can support himself with two months of paid work a year. The rest of the time he donates to the Free Software Foundation. It's not in the same league as running Microsoft, but he gets by.


Still, Stallman's existence is far from certain. He had to work hard to develop the funding lines he has. In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, the Free Software Foundation doesn't pay Stallman a salary or cover his travel expenses. He says that getting paid by corporations to port software helped make ends meet, but it didn't help create new software. Stallman works hard to raise new funds for the FSF, and the money goes right out the door to pay programmers on new projects. This daily struggle for some form of income is one of the greatest challenges in the free source world today.


Many other free software folks are following Stallman's tack by selling the services, not the software. Many of the members of the Apache Webserver Core, for instance, make their money by running websites. They get paid because their customers are able to type in www.website.com and see something pop up. The customer doesn't care whether it is free software or something from Microsoft that is juggling the requests. They just want the graphics and text to keep moving.


Some consultants are following in the same footsteps. Several now offer discounts of something like 25 percent if the customer agrees to release the source code from the project as free software. If there's no great proprietary information in the project, then customers often take the deal. At first glance, the consultant looks like he's cutting his rates by 25 percent, but at second glance, he might be just making things a bit more efficient for all of his customers. He can reuse the software his clients release, and no one knows it better than he does. In time, all of his clients share code and enjoy lower development costs.
The model of selling services instead of source code works well for many people, but it is still far from perfect. Software that is sold as part of a shrink-wrapped license is easy for people to understand and budget. If you pay the price, you get the software. Services are often billed by the hour and they're often very open-ended. Managing these relationships can be just as difficult as raising some capital to write the software and then marketing it as shrink-wrapped code.