elementary misses the point

A recent post on the elementary blog about how they ask for payment on download created a bit of a stir this week. One particular sentence struck a nerve (it has since been removed from the post): “We want users to understand that they’re pretty much cheating the system when they choose not to pay for software.”

No, they aren’t. I understand that people want to get paid for their work. It’s only natural. Especially when you’d really like that work to be what puts food on the table and not something you do after you work a full week for someone else. I certainly don’t begrudge developers asking for money. I don’t even begrudge requiring payment before being able to download the software. The developers are absolutely right when they say “elementary is under no obligation to release our compiled operating system for free download.”

Getting paid for developing open source software is not antithetical to open source or free (libre) software principles. Neither the OSI’s Open Source Definition nor the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Definition necessarily preclude a developer from charging for works. That most software that’s free-as-in-freedom is also free-as-in-beer is true, but irrelevant. Even elementary touts the gratis nature of their work on the front page (talk about mixed messages):

100% free, both in terms of pricing and licensing. But you're a cheater if you take the free option.

100% free, both in terms of pricing and licensing. But you’re a cheater if you take the free option.

Simply put, the developers cannot choose to offer their work for free and then get mad when people take them up on the offer. Worse, they cannot alienate their community by calling them cheaters. Of the money the elementary receives, how much of it goes upstream to the Linux Foundation, the FSF, and the numerous other projects that make elementary possible? Surely they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to take the work of others for free?

An open source project is more than just coders. It’s more than just coders and funders. A truly healthy project of any appreciable size will have people who contribute in various ways: writing documentation; providing support on mailing lists, fora, etc.; triaging bug reports; filing bug reports; doing design; marketing (including word-of-mouth). This work is important to the project, too, and should be considered an in-kind form of payment.

It’s up to each project to decide what they want in return for the work put in. But it’s up to each project to accept that people will take from all of the choices that are available. If that includes “I get it for free”, then the right answer is to find ways for those people to become a part of the community and contribute how they can.

11 thoughts on “elementary misses the point

  1. Yea, elementary OS’es developers really mucked up there.
    I’d actually encourage elementary to charge for the OS, without a “$0” option.
    I’d also encourage them to, you know, remove non-free blobs, etc…

  2. Surely most people would be more keen to pay after having tried Elementary and deciding to make it their OS of choice… a ‘donate’ option in the taskbar sounds like something they should consider.

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  4. Pff. Even if one does not want to “point fingers”…this stuff is just natural given the background this guys come from. I understand not everybody could be RedHat, SuSE, etc. but when people get wrong even very simple things consistently, they are kinda stupid or “evil”(almost every new change in Ubuntu based on Canonical decisions has to be adjusted in some form after big critic). I understand everybody wants money(big yacht, etc 🙂 ), but please don’t say “we make entire OS” when 99% of the work is done by people before you stop using diapers(even google does not claim to build Android in vacum!).

  5. elementaryOS seems to be losing its way. Luna was a masterpiece but Freya is displaying “we’ve lost our way’ symptoms.
    The theming isn’t consistent anymore, some apps are themed dark and some the light grey of Luna. I downloaded the Freya Beta yesterday. It crashed repeatedly – on stock Dell hardware, with no additions other than the updates available.
    Shame. And whilst I didn’t notice the “you’re a cheat if you take if for free’ I won’t be going back for that reason.

  6. Nope. You dont get the point. Its fine if they state that, they are not obligated to release their work for free. And yes, it was a bit harsh even when they pointed, it was cheating to not pay for something.

    But, in a sense they are correct. How can you expect something for free. “Free” is not a right. It is only a gift. Those developers work hard and work passionately to build something. They just want their skills and their ideas adopted, seen in the open, embraced by like minds. It gives them satisfaction and it gives them support. But that alone wont fill their stomach.

    When they said that it is cheating by not paying, they pointed the harsh truth of a community not willing to work for themselves, work on THEIR thoughts and ideas but ready to up their arms when someone does. Ready to criticize on what is wrong and what is right. Ready to point flaws. But never ready to appreciate the hard work. And never ready to support.

    Let me tell you it is hard to build something like this. Only thing as a member of the community can do is to feel for them just once and simply support when they need it.

  7. @arjun, you read the post, right? I said it’s fine that they want donations. In fact, I even said I’d be okay if they required payment before download. I even called the fact that most libre software is also gratis irrelevant. I *want* them to get paid.

    The entire issue is that they’re offering, even promoting, the gratis nature of elementary. That’s not cheating the system, that’s taking the developers up on an offer they made.

  8. I just want to talk about a particular point you make:

    The developers are absolutely right when they say “elementary is under no obligation to release our compiled operating system for free download.”

    That’s, at least in part, true. However, for the Linux kernel, Gnome, and a bunch of the GPLed software that elementary OS relies upon, there are caveats. Redhat, for example, publishes all of their source code, but charges for their software. However, CentOS will then take the source which Redhat is legally required to publish and build their OS (which therefore becomes RedHat compatible). Elementary is under similar legal obligations.

    This obligation leads to ethical obligations, too. If they build their OS on top of the Linux kernel (which they got “for free”), and a Kernel contributor wants to download elementary, are they ethically obligated to pay? What about a Gnome contributor? Is elementary going to take these payments and re-distribute them to the FSF, the Linux Kernel, Apache, the Gnome foundation, etc.?

    If anyone should have the finger pointed at them for being freeloaders or cheaters, the finger must start by being pointed at the elementary team.

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