21. New

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


Most of this book frames the entire free source movement as something new and novel. The notion of giving away free source code is something that seems strange and counterintuitive. But despite all of the gloss and excitement about serious folks doing serious work and then just giving it away like great philanthropists, it's pretty easy to argue that this has all been done before. The software world is just rediscovering secrets that the rest of the world learned long ago.


Giving things away isn't a radical idea. People have been generous since, well, the snake gave Eve that apple. Businesses love to give things away in the hope of snagging customers. Paper towel manufacturers give away towel hardware that only accepts paper in a proprietary size. Food companies give coolers and freezers to stores if the stores agree not to stock rival brands in them.


In fact, most industries do more than just give away free gifts to lure customers. Most share ideas, strategies, and plans between competitors because cooperation lets them all blossom. Stereo companies make components that interoperate because they adhere to the same standard. Lawyers, engineers, and doctors are just some of the people who constantly trade ideas and solutions with each other despite the fact that they work as competitors. A broad, central, unowned pool of knowledge benefits everyone in much the same way that it helps the free software community.


The real question is not "Who do these pseudo-commie pinkos think they are?" It's "What took the software industry so long to figure this out?" How did the programmers who are supposedly a bunch of whip-smart, hard-core libertarians let a bunch of lawyers lead them down a path that put them in a cubicle farm and prevented them from talking to each other?


Recipes are one of the closest things to software in the material world, and many restaurants now share them widely. While chefs once treated them like industrial secrets, they now frequently give copies to magazines and newspapers as a form of publicity. The free advertisement is worth more than the possibility that someone will start cloning the recipe. The restaurants recognized that they were selling more than unique food. Ambiance, service, and quality control are often more in demand than a particular recipe.


When the free software industry succeeds by sharing the source code now, it's capitalizing on the fact that most people don't want to use the source code to set up a take-no-prisoners rivalry. Most people just want to get their work done. The cost of sharing source code is so low that it doesn't take much gain to make it worth the trouble. One bug fix or tiny feature could pay for it.