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Developers: Starving Artists?

Call me a capitalist, but if I spend my time creating a software package that someone else will use, I expect to be compensated—especially if they use that tool to make money. The compensation may be economic or non-economic, but the choice should be mine. Taking that statement a step further, why would I give away my code and then have some commercial firm make money "supporting" my code? That doesn't make any sense. The best example of this setup is Linux. Linus Torvalds created an operating system that had all of the benefits of UNIX, but ran on relatively inexpensive hardware. That operating system is now a popular alternative to Windows. Today, numerous companies such as Red Hat and Novell sell distributions (versions) of Linux and support contracts for those distributions. Does Linus or any other developer contributing to the Linux kernel directly benefit from his labors? No. The companies selling support for his operating system are benefiting. For that matter, any commercial firm that uses the Linux operating system to run business systems is also benefiting.

Unfortunately, almost regardless of country of origin, individual developers need to make money to survive—to pay rent/mortgage, buy food, purchase goods and services, and generally make ends meet. While the license that governs a lot of open source software—the GPL—does provide for the idea of making money on "distributing software," it doesn't allow developers to receive direct compensation for the act of development. This begs the question: Does distribution deserve compensation, but development not deserve compensation?

I know what you're going to say: Plenty of companies pay developers to create code that's licensed using the GPL or LGPL. Even IBM has recently begun releasing code to the market as open source. I would counter with one question: Were they making money on that code or product before? The answer is no. IBM, which reportedly invested $1 billion in Linux development in 2001, makes almost that amount in Linux-related revenue per year. [1] However, when you dig into those numbers, what did they actually invest their money in and what are they really making money on? Did they "donate" some of that money to individuals who worked on the Linux kernel or other open source projects? No. Are they making money on developing open source software? Obviously, no. They're making money on selling hardware and services, related to supporting open source applications. Who are the individuals benefiting from the revenue generated by IBM? IBM employees—not the open source developers who produced the product. Where's the benefit to the developer who built the original application? Nowhere. In fact, according to The Economist, most developers contribute to open source projects "...to gain reputation among their peers...." [2] The same article, however, highlights that "[m]any startups that tried to make money from open source software have already gone bust...." Granted, this statement was made in 2002. Has anything really changed in two years? Somewhat. Are any big companies making significant revenue on open source software? No—at least not by producing software and distributing it for a fee. What companies are still benefiting from Linux and other open source applications? In essence, the only ones who benefit from the labor of the numerous developers who actively contribute code to open source projects are commercial companies that can spin a services engagement out of a particular application.

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