Opinion: Free isn’t the future

Firefox is arguably the most successful example of free and open source software.

Firefox is arguably the most successful example of free and open source software.

Jason Walsh is in favour of free software, so why does he have a problem with the worlds of open source and free content?

Here’s a saying for you: the best things in life aren’t free. After all, if someone can make a quick buck by selling anything to you, they invariably will.

Despite this, the last decade has seen the seemingly inexorable rise of the free software movement and its near-twin open source software. Applications, utilities and even entire operating systems are now being developed by open groups of individuals and distributed at no-cost to the end user. In some ways this is nothing short of a revolution. But is there a down side to this digital cornucopia?

Advocates have long pointed to the acceptance of open source software by the business world, seeing this as the ultimate legitimisation of the open source model. I am less convinced. Of course businesses like open source – it’s free labour. What penny-pinching plutocrat wouldn’t be delighted with an army of Morlocks toiling away for nothing but a pat on the back and the admiration of their peers?

Plenty of open source software companies have pioneered innovative ways to make money, some more successfully than others, but that is not the whole story. Other companies, usually entrenched players, particularly in the hardware space or in web services, have simply profiteered off the back of people’s work.

Although open source labour not slave labour – it is voluntary after all – it does share one characteristic: it is inherently unreliable. Unsurprisingly, slaves didn’t much like being forced to work and, as a result, they did not work efficiently. With open source the problem is different, but similar. Programmers who work on open source software may do so for a variety of reasons ranging from simple altruism to self-interest. What they tend not to be very interested in is the profitability of some company that goes on to sell their work – and why should they be?

The latest buzz on the internet surrounds user-generated content. Cheerleaders for the Web 2.0 ‘revolution’ argue that it’s about time the little guy got his or her say and they their creativity has been crushed by the dead hand of mass media. This is partly true but a disinterested look at what is actually going on reveals a slightly different picture: user-generated content producers are in danger of dancing to a tune played by a few small players – again, profit-making businesses earning a dollar or a million off the back of their unpaid work.

The fact is, much supposedly ‘free’ material on the internet is actually bought and paid for.

It often seems that the everything-for-free economy is fought only by entrenched, vested interests: a recording industry that refuses to engage with consumer desires, a film industry that does the same and a press that is scared of losing advertising revenue. This is a fair perception, but it’s only half right. Whatever one’s views of a particular company or corporation, or indeed any form of economic organisation, people in the here and now need to make money in order to survive. We can pretend that we don’t live in a capitalist economy, but we’d be lying to ourselves and while that remains the case the demand for everything to be free seems to amount to a demand for socialism in one person.

Even my own trade union, the National Union of Journalists, has had the odd tussle over user-generated content. And why not? The union is there to ensure that journalists get paid for their work – and work is surely what writing is.

Consider this: newspaper and magazine cover sales amount to virtually no profit for publishers, often barely covering costs. The real money is in advertising. In fact, the main purpose of charging for a publication is to stop people reading it, or at least to stop the wrong people reading it. Advertisers value relevant readers interested in their products. Any print publication could if it was so minded print two million copies and give them all away for free, but the huge increase in readership would not result in a rise in advertising rates because the magazine’s advertisers are not interested in a general audience. The net result would be massively increased print and distribution costs that would not be matched by and increase in revenue. What works for a commuter newspaper does not necessarily work for a computer magazine.

The difference today is the impact of the internet. Of course, the internet is merely a technology. What has changed is scarcity. At least with regard to information we live in a post-scarcity society.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of the bible of techno-capitalism, Wired magazine, recently penned an article called ‘Free: Why $0.00 is the future of business’. What kind of future is that? If enough people are willing to do my job, or yours, for free, then you and I will both be out of work. Is this a good enough reason to ask you to put your money where my mouth is? No, not really. However, to imagine that everything can be free is simply foolish – and wrongheaded to boot.

Richard Stallman, often portrayed as a kind of political extremist, actually makes more sense than many open source advocated. Stallman’s point is essentially one of freedom – freedom to do use software as you see fit, not how its creator tells you to use it. This is the real reason you hear more about open source software than free software, despite being different reasons for creating effectively the same thing – Stallman’s argument does not suit business interests. Stallman argues that free software need not hurt business, but clearly this message has not got across.

No-cost services and software certainly have their place and I fully support the endeavours of programmers, photographers, bloggers, graphic artists and anyone else who wants to do what they do for their own reasons – for love of the work, for a hobby, in order to fix something that’s broken – but it is important to keep a calm head.

Let’s not be hypocritical about this issue: free and open source software has transformed the personal computing world and, in fact, arguably gave birth to it even if it wasn’t called that back then.

There are also serious questions to be asked about the entire concept of ‘intellectual property’ and piracy, though illegal, does not equate to simple theft – bits are not atoms and are infinitely copyable – but people do need to make a living.

Jason Walsh is the editor of forth magazine

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