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Free software and programmers exploitation

Some people worry that free software/open source movement leads to the developers being a new "workers" class exploited by the free software companies. In the time when big companies such as RedHat, Sun, HP, Novell etc. are proving how economically viable open source business model can be, some people wonder what's up with "poor" free software programmers and developers who happily contribute their work and source codes to the community for the sake of freedom and bettering the whole society without getting anything in return, economically speaking.
My goal with this article is to define the reasons and motivations for which programmers develop free software and determine if the worry of them becoming the new exploited class of the IT age is well founded

Free programmers movement

Without programmers, there would be no free software movement as it exists today. They are the cause of it's very existence and growth and they are the ones that play the major role in keeping it alive and thriving. As a matter of fact, the very founder of free software movement is the "last hacker" as people sometimes call him, Richard M. Stallman. Indeed, consumers do play a great role in free software movement's growth, but that's only natural since you can't beat "free" as the price. So many consumers have adopted free software because it was good enough for it's price or sometimes even better than the proprietary counterparts. However, if programmers would stop producing it, consumers would have no choice but to use proprietary software which would result in death of free software movement. So, they are logically the key to it's success. But why do they do that? Why do so many programmers put so much effort and work into something they won't get payed for?
Here's an interesting sentence I've read in "Is Free Software Inevitable?" article by Linas Vepstas:
"Free software wins not only because consumers like the price, but because producers like the freedom."
This sentence points the obvious reason of consumers acceptance of free software and implies the reason of developers acceptance of free software development model.
What kind of freedom is this that developers like?

If you read GNU Manifesto, you'll notice the part where Richard Stallman explains why many programmers want to help in building free GNU system. Here's what he says:

"I have found many other programmers who are excited about GNU and want to help.
Many programmers are unhappy about the commercialization of system software. It may enable them to make more money, but it requires them to feel in conflict with other programmers in general rather than feel as comrades. The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially forbid programmers to treat others as friends. The purchaser of software must choose between friendship and obeying the law. Naturally, many decide that friendship is more important. But those who believe in law often do not feel at ease with either choice. They become cynical and think that programming is just a way of making money.
By working on and using GNU rather than proprietary programs, we can be hospitable to everyone and obey the law. In addition, GNU serves as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to, this is an important happiness that money cannot replace."

Programmers are not necessarily businessmen that are in it for money and programming as a profession is much more than just a "lucrative business" as many today tend to describe it. From the very beginning, it was and still is a certain culture born and raised by a number of technology enthusiasts, knowledge hungry people from colleges and universities. Programming was and still is a lifestyle to a programmer, not just a job or a business. As in every culture, there is a certain codex to follow, like a set of unwritten rules. And proprietary software "revolution" that was falling upon the programmers of those days tented to force them to break those rules, change their programming lifestyle. They actually had the need to collaborate, share ideas and therefore share software and it's source codes, and proprietary software companies deprived them of this except in certain closed circles, by using nondisclosure agreements and licenses. They needed a platform in which that original programmer culture spirit would live on, and GNU was that platform. And it grew into a free software movement. I like to say that it's just the way it was meant to be.
So, when speaking of that freedom that programmers like, we speak of freedom to share their mutual passion and love for programming by sharing software and code, being allowed to make modifications without being restricted and controlled by the business managers of proprietary software companies.
However, the story doesn't end here.
Let's take a case of Richard Stallman in regard to his reasons of producing software that is free to use, copy, modify and redistribute in any form (modified or unmodified).
Here's what he says in GNU Manifesto as the reason for writing GNU:

"Why I Must Write GNU

I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other in-hospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will.

So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away."

Obviously, Richard Stallman is a person of high sense of ethics and morality. He considers working on a proprietary software or even using it as dishonorable and as an attack to his own good conscience. To Richard Stallman, only ethical reasons alone are the motivation enough to write free software and while we could hold him as a "special case" due to his uncompromisable personality, it is not unreasonable to say that there are many others with the same or similar attitude. That may be the additional reason why programmers write free software, besides programming being a culture invaded by proprietary software.
Many programmers contribute free software as part of their education or as a "hobby" in their spare time and they may or may not fit the described categories, but it's a fact that free software doesn't gets produced only by universities and education institutions nor only by spare time coders. And then again, they may sooner or later decide their destiny as a free software programmer or proprietary software programmer. Some may do both, but it is often the case more to the fact of them being ready to make compromises and work on proprietary software as a proprietary software company employee at the same time working on free software at home, but that is by my opinion becoming a rarer case.

Free software movement may truly be called a "programmers movement" since it's indeed started by programmers for the above presented reasons and they still play a key role in it. Consumers are in the least case just a "fuel" powering it, however, many more enthusiastic ones join the hordes of others such as writers, publishers, webmasters and even businesses in their free software "evangelism" in order to convince more people into free software movement, for their own good.

Down to business...
Now when we identified the reasons for which most free software programmers do what they do, let's examine the situation in which their positions might become endangered in the future that comes.
The most popular free software business model and business implementation today seems to be selling packed and polished linux distributions with bundled support (RedHat, Mandrake Novell SuSE etc). This business model is valid and it proves how viable free software and open source can be as a business model killing the arguments of some people who argued how it simply cannot work that way. RedHat is a shiny example of this.
What they do is take the software from many different programmers, integrate all that together on top of the recent linux kernel, develop their own package management and other integration systems to form an usable wholeness that we call an operating system, in the case of linux, an operating system distribution. Then they charge for a certain distribution service such as providing it on a CDs or DVDs which is usually a boxed version that often contains printed manuals which they also add to the price, or a download service where you get the image file which you can burn yourself (even though many give download for free, there are some that charge for it). Additionally, they usually bundle support service subscription which in the end forms a bold price. Their primary source of income are companies that use linux for their operations which pay that price for the full package since they need these professional support services. Some home users pay too as a way of showing support or because they like the idea of having a professional support available.
This all works well, and is completely legal as well as in accordance with free software philosophy and GPL license. GPL allows them to view and tamper with the source code to create a distro and it allows them to redistribute it for a price which is not exactly a price for software itself, but for the distribution (and additionally support) service with which it's being provided.
The question is what do the programmers that worked for free on all that software that's being bundled, get from all this great business? Isn't it unfair for RedHat and others to earn wealths on the work of programmers who get nothing but honor and glory of being authors of popular software tools that are included in a distro? Does this makes them a "glorified workers class of the IT age" being exploited by the free software businesses?
If the answer to these questions is positive and as programmers are the ones causing free software movement, then it would seem that they brought themselves into a big trouble, doesn't it? Then they must be some weird "nation" and we're not mistaken to call them weird geeks, right? Eye
Okay, enough questions, let's see how can we clarify this whole issue.

Programmers and their freedom!

As i described above, Richard Stallman and other programmers developed GNU project and therefore started free software movement with freedom as the main goal. As implied, it wasn't only about freedom for software users, but their freedom as well, the freedom to share software and code, to live a programmers lifestyle and culture.
Let's divide the whole free software world into two sorts of people, programmers and users, with no others such as writers, businesses, etc. In this case, everybody that is not a programmer fits into the users category. Therefore, RedHat and other businesses fall into the category of users no matter if some of them might be some internal programmers. The RedHat as the entity is a business entity that only takes and gives, generating wealth in the process.

Now when you imagined this picture, think about this: Users depend on programmers!
If programmers stopped producing or releasing software, depending users don't have any means of forcing them to continue. How could it then be possible for programmers to become an exploited "worker class". For someone to be exploited, it must be forced to work on something no matter what. There has to be a mechanism that will allow for such exploitation, an mechanism that would prevent programmers from "dropping the keyboard" and stopped working or at least keep their work private.

Programmers started the movement for the sake of freedom, and indeed, they ensured themselves the true freedom as they are not dependent on anyone. As much as GPL allows companies like RedHat to earn big cash on programmers work, it also allows programmers the freedom to stop working or at least releasing their work. The programmer has complete control over his programming life even if some would actually argue otherwise using the classical �freedom to get payed� argument.

Now, you might wonder, would continued case of big open source corporations getting rich on programmers work cause free software movement to just break once they'd stop working or releasing software? I say no. It is because if and when such thing might start happening, those corporations would be aware of the cause which makes programmers stop producing code for them and they'd take certain measures to prevent that in order to save their business. Those measures can be nothing else but providing options from which programmers can get payed for their work. You see, exploitation in such an open and free world is simply impossible. It's a special relationship where everybody gets all the freedoms that they really need, and that freedom is their very protection.

However, we still don't see programmers using that freedom and quitting on producing free software no matter that they're not getting payed. For many, the reward enough can be the respect and "glory" that they get from it while some may successfully attempt to earn from their own software selling downloads, CD's or even their own support services. Additionally, free software programmers are and will be highly demanded for fixing certain bugs and software problems for companies and organizations and get payed for it. As free software adoption in business rises, more companies will hire free software programmers for such jobs. And as the free software adoption globally rises, both individual programmer and the global society gains more than it looses.

The fact is that programmers in free software world can and do get payed, only less, but that's the way it should be. In the end, a free software programmer is can be more happy with less money and more freedom and love for what he's doing than it would be as a proprietary software developer with more money and an approach to his job as only a lucrative business and nothing else.


Programmers are the ones that started free software movement in order to preserve their hacking freedoms and hacker culture and so it lives now. The very freedom that they preserved serves as their protection from not only outside forces such as proprietary software corporations and their nondisclosure agreements, but from the inside negative forces that may arise such as this exploitation by a free software companies. As they should be, freedom software programmers stay in control over their destiny and they are not the ones who depend, the users are, including businesses. The freedom that they preserved is not only for themselves, but for everyone. That\'s the way it had to be in order to work properly. Users had to have the same freedoms that programmers do, only users would use those freedoms differently. If a user becomes a programmer, he will use these same freedoms the way the programmer does. It is a perfect symbiotic relationship between the maker and the consumer from which everyone extracts gains both individually and globally. What keeps this perfect symbiosis working is the true freedom.

Published under the terms of FDL


Not just freedom.


Fame. Look at what people will do to get their 15 minutes of fame. For every actor that can make a living acting, there are 100 starving or needing a "day job" to survive.

Alchemy vs. Chemistry. Alchemy depends on secrets making one's knowledge "magical". The knowledge dies with you, unless you pass it on. Any trading of knowledge is between alchemists. The greater population has to pay whatever is asked for the alchemist's service, or do without. With science, the process is open for others to critique, refine and build on. No "reinventing the wheel" required - one can accomplish great things by "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Peter M. Eggers

Re: Not just freedom.

I agree Peter.

Everybody should then ask themselves this question, according to your comment: What would you rather have, alchemy (closed circled knowledge and no society progress) or "chemistry", that is, science where knowledge is free and open which spurs the overall progress of humanity?

Thank you

Re: Not just freedom.


Alchemy vs. Chemistry. Alchemy depends on secrets making one's knowledge "magical". The knowledge dies with you, unless you pass it on. Any trading of knowledge is between alchemists. The greater population has to pay whatever is asked for the alchemist's service, or do without. With science, the process is open for others to critique, refine and build on. No "reinventing the wheel" required - one can accomplish great things by "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Peter M. Eggers

I think you completely has no clue what the REAL Alchemy or Magic is. It depends on secrets no more than for the average
nonsavy computer user the mystery is the knowledge of writing Bash scripts. It is also a form of magical alphabet that only "a few" know. Now in Alchemy the knowledge is explained in books written
by alchemists for the sake of humaniy throughout the centuries. Anyone who is willing to read them can even do so today, as there is no big problem with finding online versions of Trithemius' Steganographia or Agrippa's Occult Philosophy. It's all out there.
So stating that Alchemy is a closed science is just a big lie. It was a science always intended for the sake of humanity, with free sharing of ideas and knowledge between alchemists (todays programmists). And everybody could become an alchemist, you only had to study a lot (like today, you need to study a lot to become a good programmer)

So it's not alchemy vs chemistry, rather i would say it's alchemy vs orthodox christianity which is a form of closed mind view.


PS. Overall, good article.

essential argument


requires them to feel in conflict with other programmers in general rather than feel as comrades. The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially forbid programmers to treat others as friends.

That to me is really the essential argument in favor of free software.

forced conflict vs friendship

It is about the right to be a part of a community where sharing code is part of the conversation and comraderie.

Re: essential argument


Very, good article. By the way does anyone know where I can get the GNU Manifesto? I figure its free :-P

Orthodox Christianity


Anonymous wrote;
I would say it's alchemy vs orthodox christianity which is a form of closed mind view.

Being a Christian I would have to agree with you many christians are extremely close minded. However, that does not mean that Christianity itself is close minded. On the contrary, Christians should seek the truth that the "truth may set them free". That's awareness knowing the truth and being free :genial:

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