Stefan Merten Stefan Merten
Taking instead of buying
Towards an economics of free software
What is free software?
There are other ways of acquiring software than just buying the commercial software that's
available on the free market like any other goods. There are, for example, the so-called
Shareware models whereby customers wanting to use the software pay a fee to the producer.
There is also the possibility of bootleg copies, an illegal means of acquiring software.
This article doesn't deal with
any of these but is about free software, which is not only almost cost-free; it also, more
significantly, incorporates regulations that guarantee freedom for the user. Besides the
right to use the software, the user also has the right to study the sources of the
software, modify them, and pass the original or modified version on.
The history of free
The history of free software is inseparable from Richard M. Stallmann, the Free Software
Foundation and the Gnu Project. Stallmann, who was accustomed to unlimited access to
software, became increasingly annoyed about the shortage of accessible software due to
increasing copyrights and secrecy. He founded the Gnu Project in 1984 with the aim of
creating an operating system similar to Unix, but independent. A big part of this aim has
been realised in the intervening years through a number of high quality programmes, but
the kernel, the heart of the new operating system, was never completed.
Into this situation came Linus
Torvalds, back in 1992. He was searching the Internet for people who shared his interest
in developing a kernel. With breathtaking speed, programmers from all over the world came
together and very quickly developed a system that is now known as Linux. As this was only
possible due to software developed by Gnu, and the current Linux edition is mostly Gnu
software, the system would be more accurately described as Gnu/Linux.
Licence to copy
Richard M. Stallmann's clever trick when founding the Gnu was to invent the
General Public Licence (GPL), permitting what other licences forbid: free copying and
sharing of software, study of its source code, modification of the software, and the
passing-on of modified versions.
The only prohibition is the
re-privatisation of software licensed by a GPL: when GPL software is passed on, the
receiver has the same right to its source code as the giver. The independence of
GPL-licensed software is carried through to any product which has evolved from the
original version, or a modified version.
Other software licences
besides GPL have been invented. Some of them allow software to be re-privatised, meaning
that donors are not obliged to pass on the source code. This may be termed Open Source
software. Free software, in the truest sense, is software licensed by a GPL, offering
users the greatest possible freedom1.
The 'free software'
In the space of a few years an increasing 'fan-club' of 'free software' users (especially
of Gnu/Linux) has come into being. There are many web sites based on Gnu/Linux, numerous
Gnu/Linux user-groups, many conferences and events - each attracting over 10,000
participants, and some Gnu/Linux-related magazines.
Some members of this community
are constantly working on the free software and inventing new software, which is in most
cases of an outstanding quality matched only by a few commercial producers. Even Microsoft
can't compete in terms of quality.
Aside from the practical gains
enjoyed by free software users, within the community of fans there is an enthusiasm for
the principle. Many are inspired by the idea of having fun programming software whilst
also doing something for the common good.
Gnu/Linux and Apache
Gnu/Linux and the Apache Web Server are the beacons of the free software movement.
Gnu/Linux is an operating system which, in the last few years, has not only become a
competitor with Microsoft, but has started to hold an increasing share of installed
systems. Even giant Microsoft has recently begun to recognise the threat and respond with
Research shows that user-numbers of the Apache web server are far higher than those of
Microsoft or Netscape. Internet providers especially, for whom high quality software is
vital, rely to a large degree on the joint forces of Gnu/Linux and Apache.
Other free projects
for the production of IT products
Inspired by the invention of free software, over the past months and years other projects
have been developed, attempting to transfer the principles of free software to other areas
of the IT market.
The Open Theory Project2
tries to develop theoretical and other texts. With the help of a web interface, readers
can comment on the texts, which were installed and are managed by a maintainer.
The projects nupedia3 and
Encyclopaedia Aperta4 are aiming to develop a free encyclopaedia.
Free music is promoted
amongst others by projects like GNUsic5 and the European MP3 group6. Free music isn't
taken from commercial CDs but is music which has been offered free from the start and can
be distributed free (in line with the GPL principle).
Free projects aimed at
developing material goods
Even in the material goods sector, projects have been developed producing free information
documents such as circuit plans or construction plans necessary for the production of
Several projects deal with the
development of electronic elements on different levels. The range now covered includes
anything from structures on chips (Free IP Project7) and electronic chips themselves
(OPENCORE.ORG8), to free CPUs (Freedom CPU9) and electronic circuits (OpenCollector10).
The most ambitious project is the OSCar-Project11, whereby a free car is to be developed.
At the moment they are working on the basis that construction plans, which may be used or
modified under a licence similar to a GPL, may be used by a company in the commercial
sector to produce cars. The ensuing product would be cheaper than commercially-developed
ones. The producer doesn't have to pay for development, which means these costs are not
passed on to the consumer. This trend towards free material goods means that in theory,
one day free goods will replace the whole 'goods' sector.
Free software as an
'Free goods' is incomprehensible within the framework of the concepts of
exchange, work and money. For many it is already hard to understand why software
developers don't ask for payment for their work. All things considered, 'free products'
can only be considered as a totally new economic model which has never previously existed.
Neither paid work nor
Because the producers of free products are not paid and usually don't want
payment, free software and other free products have no value. Like the air we breathe,
they don't have to be paid for but nevertheless are available in surplus for those who
need them. At the same time, producers of free products don't invest effort solely for
themselves. Although a producer's own practical needs play a role in the development of a
free product, many producers of free goods work with others to modify their products,
producing goods which are mainly for the use of others. This concept differs from
subsistence economics: work carried out only for the need of an individual or a particular
Neither exchange nor
Free software and other free products are not objects of exchange. Free software
is available to anybody who needs it. It's there for the taking. Even someone who hasn't
contributed to the development of free software - like the average user of Gnu/Linux - can
use it to its full extent, look at the sources, learn from them and then pass them on. It
is also the case that a person who has contributed can't expect to get anything for it.
Having said that, this process
can't be described as 'giving a gift', because the product is not designed for a
particular person. At best, it might be described as a gift to humanity.
The role of digital
copies and the internet
This totally new economic model within this sector was historically only made possible
through the invention of the digital copy and its wide circulation. It is computers which
have brought about the massive reduction in unit costs of digital copying, making
possible, in turn, the infinite copying of data without any loss of quality. This data can
include software, web pages, recipes, travel reports, letters, pictures, circuit plans,
The internet, which can be
understood as a huge distance-copying facility, undoes the limitations of a local computer
and makes world-wide networking possible. The internet can bring together, in a historic
new way, people from all over the world who share the same interests. Free software is an
example of how useful this global network can be.
as the driving force
Although the producers of free software don't get any money, they do get something out of
writing software. One of the most important motivations is the fun they have writing
computer programmes. This, for some, is enough. Its practical uses for oneself or others
also plays an important role in the production of free software. Producers are focussed on
the software's user-value and quality. Others again enjoy working in a like-minded team.
Those who work as maintainers of free software projects need to enjoy communication,
organisation, and decision-making that reflects the consensus of the project. And then
there are those who write software because they want to give something to the world.
The motivations behind the development of free software can be summarised in the wish for
self-fulfilment. This personal experience is different for everybody. Authors of free
software mostly have other means of income and don't need any other external motivation
for their work: the work is worthwhile in itself.
This leads, then, to a new economic model whereby available products exist in surplus and
everyone can just take what they need. An exchange of valuables, as such, is no longer
necessary, but still the best possible provision of goods is guaranteed.
If this attitude, which is
already well-developed in the realm of free software, could be extended to other IT
sectors and later, to material goods, this new economic model could potentially replace
traditional economics with its concepts of exchange, work and money. Some moves to
transfer the principles of free software to other products are already happening and the
recent acceleration of such developments might lead to a much faster change than is