Releasing open source software is not immoral

Matt Stancliff recently made a bold statement on Twitter:

He made this comment in the context of the small amount of money the largest tech companies use to fund open source. With the five largest companies contributing less than a percentage of their annual revenue, open source projects would have two billion dollars of support. These projects are already subsidizing the large corporations, he argues, so they deserve some of the rewards.

This continues the recent trend of people being surprised that people will take free things and not pay for them. Developers who choose to release software under an open source license do so with the knowledge that someone else may use their software to make boatloads of money. Downstream users are under no obligation to remunerate or support upstreams in any way.

That said, I happen to think it’s the right thing to do. I contributed to Fedora as a volunteer for years as a way to “pay back” the community that gave me a free operating system. At a previous company, we made heavy use of an open source job scheduler/resource manager. We provided support on the community mailing lists and sponsored a reception at the annual conference. This was good marketing, of course, but it was also good community citizenship.

At any rate, if you want to make a moral judgment about open source, it’s not the release of open source software that’s the issue. The issue is parasitic consumption of open source software. I’m sure all of the large tech companies would say they support open source software, and they probably do in their own way. But not necessarily in the way that allows small-but-critical projects to thrive.

Toward a more moral ecosystem

Saying “releasing open source software has become immoral” is not helpful. Depriving large companies of open source would also deprive small companies and consumers. And it’s the large companies who could best survive the loss. Witness how MongoDB’s license change has Amazon using DocumentDB instead; meanwhile Linux distributions like Fedora are dropping MongoDB.

It’s an interesting argument, though, because normally when morality and software are in the mix, it’s the position that open source (or “free software” in this context, generally) is the moral imperative. That presents us with one possible solution: licensing your projects under a copyleft license (e.g. the GNU General Public License (GPL)). Copyleft-licensed software can still be used by large corporations to make boatloads of money, but at least it requires them to make source (including of derived works) available. With permissively-licensed software, you’re essentially saying “here’s my code, do whatever you want with it.” Of course people are going to take you up on that offer.

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