I’ve been a committed user of free and open source software (FOSS) for the better part of the last three years. In that time I haven’t paid for a single piece of software. In fact, I honestly can’t remember the last time that I actually have paid for software. I am sometimes amazed by the amount of fully functioning software that I get for the great price of free. However, at this time of year, when festive cheer is at its height, I think it’s about time we broke out our wallets and actually paid for the ‘free’ software that we do use.
Being the starving college student that I am, I to make it clear that I do not consider spending money on software lightly. I wouldn’t ever fork over the hundreds of dollars needed for Windows or Office or any of the Adobe products. At the same time I am a software developer and though I love creating software, I would like to be able to make a better than decent living from it someday. Being a computer science student, I also understand full well that writing good software is hard, it’s mentally draining and there’s only so much caffeine-powered coding you can do in a day before your productivity goes south. Like spending money on software, it’s a commitment not to be taken lightly. And you can’t conceivably invest so much effort into something so demanding unless you truly love what you’re doing. All the software I’m using now, the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities, the Emacs editor and the Firefox browser, collectively represent thousands, maybe even millions of man hours of programming time. All the programmers that have invested their time, effort (and probably money) into creating these great tools for everyone to use surely deserve compensation. At the very least, we have a commitment to help sustain the infrastructure that supports the FOSS movement. Server space and bandwidth aren’t exactly free and with the number of downloads continually growing, there will be increasing costs to pay to keep the movement going.
If you’re immediately put off by the thought of paying for software, don’t be, it’s not as painful as it sounds. The good news is that with free software you get to set the price. Even for a student like me, $50 or $100 a year is a very reasonable price to pay. If you’re a professional developer using free tools to write code for pay, consider a monthly contribution of $10 – $20 alternating between your commonly used FOSS projects. The bargain you’re getting is amazing. If a corporation actually charged for all the tools out there, we’d easily be having to fork over hundreds of dollars a years.
After reading two posts on Coding Horror, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is only logical to donate a reasonable amount to help support the free software we use. Jeff Atwood’s posts focus on paying for cheap, high quality software as opposed to pirating it. His reasoning is that if you don’t pay the bare minimum there soon won’t be anyone interested in making good software at low prices. The exact same logic holds for FOSS. Sure, there will always be people like Linus Torvalds releasing their private projects for others to use, and there will always be people like Richard Stallman driven by pure ideology. But in the end, unless people like you and me decide to make a contribution, hobby projects will stay hobby projects and not reach the levels of quality and reliability that we’ve come to expect. So the next time you’re out buying presents for your loved ones take a minute to think about all the people who have made your life as a programmer easier (and maybe helped you earn the money you’re now spending). And right now, when you finish reading this, pull out your credit card and donate some money to the open source project who’s software you value the most.
This year I’ll be donating $50 to Arch Linux. It’s the distro I’ve been using for the last two years and I appreciate both the technical quality and the lively community.