Open source is not piracy

| 17 Comments

Jeff Atwood's blog Coding Horror is one of my favorites. Until yesterday, I'd been recommending it unreservedly.

Jeff's made a big stumble, and I hope he corrects it soon, publicly. In his latest article, We Don't Use Software That Costs Money Here, he talks about how the free software alternatives to non-free software are getting better all the time. Unfortunately, he claims that

It's tempting to ascribe this to the "cult of no-pay", programmers and users who simply won't pay for software no matter how good it is, or how inexpensive it may be. These people used to be called pirates. Now they're open source enthusiasts.

He couldn't be more wrong. There is no equating software piracy, the theft and misuse of copyrighted software, with using open source, where the license specifically allows and encourages the redistribution of the software. Piracy violates the terms of the copyright and license. It's possible to do this with open source software as well, by not following the terms of the license.

In fact, there's no difference between open source software creators protecting their freely-licensed software from owners of non-open licensed software, such as the unfairly reviled Metallica, from protecting their works as well. When we applaud the Software Freedom Law Center for suing companies that violate the GPL, we should also recognize that owners of commercial software licenses should enjoy the same rights to protect their licensing terms as well.

I'm urging Jeff Atwood to correct his mistake. Open source software is nothing at all like piracy. Open source is about the license, not the financial cost.

17 Comments

I think he is not as mistaken as it looks from that. It seems to me that he is talking about people who use free software not because it’s libre, but because it’s gratis. They definitely exist. I think in fact they aren’t uncommon in the Windows ecosystem – chromatic complains about those sorts of users quite a bit, I think. They are happy to use something they get at no cost, and to complain about it, but usually won’t contribute at all, taking on the same attitude in dealing with the makers of the software as one would with a company that sells non-free apps.

Back when I was in my teens and didn’t know anything but DOS/Windows, I might have been one of them. I pirated a lot of software – a lot of the applications I needed for things like software development were orders of magnitude past my budget (Borland Pascal anyone?). I do still say that one thing I love about free software is never having to feel guilty about violating a licence. Not only are you expressly permitted to use someone else’s code without paying, but if you smile and say thanks for it, they are elated to have you use it. (Certainly this is the case with code I have released.)

The part where I don’t fit Jeff’s tale, though, is that now that I have a proper income, I have donated money to several free software projects whose products I use. I have also contributed the occasional patch, which I think is worth much more than monetary donations; that sort of option doesn’t exist at all with non-free programs.

> I think he is not as mistaken as it looks from
> that. It seems to me that he is talking about
> people who use free software not because it’s
> libre, but because it’s gratis.

It doesn't matter why they use it. That's the whole point of open source software. As long as they use the software in compilance with the license that it's published with, they're not pirates.
Also, you can hardly expect everyone who uses open source software to contribute to it. If that was somehow mandatory, open source wouldn't be near the point where it is today.

AAARRRRRRR!

I too don't think Jeff made a "big stumble".

He seems to say that many people who used to use commercial software without paying (then considered "pirates"), have turned into happy, legitimate users of open source software.

He does not say "open source users used to be pirates". Logically:

A => B doesn't mean B => A.

So the presence of good Open Source software enables them to not pay for programs without acting illegal.

> So the presence of good Open Source software enables them to not pay for programs without acting illegal.

If acting illegally didn't stop them from using the software they wanted to use before, why would it start doing so now?

(Please delete my previous comment.)

So the presence of good Open Source software enables them to not pay for programs without acting illegal.

If acting illegally didn't stop them from using the software they wanted to use before, why would it start doing so now?

He definitely did say that.

"It's tempting to ascribe this to the 'cult of no-pay', programmers and users who simply won't pay for software no matter how good it is, or how inexpensive it may be."

Here Jeff has described a group. He doesn't say they steal software or make their own - simply that they won't pay for software.

"These people used to be called pirates."

Here Jeff clarifies this group with a title. One we're all familiar with: he's talking about people who steal software.

"Now they're open source enthusiasts."

Finally, here Jeff gives them another title. He says "open source enthusiasts" are one in the same.

It seems fairly straightforward to both the poster and me. However, whether that was what Jeff intended is ambiguous given your response.

All the more reason for him to clarify.

@David Ryland Scott Robinson (et al)

I don't buy your breakdown. Though I must say that in trying to flesh out the intent I gathered from reading it I changed my mind twice. Mind you each time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but for different reasons. The fact that I had to reread it a few times to really understand what he was saying points out the simple fact that Jeff wrote a easily confused set of sentences.

Here's the way I believe it to be read:
The label software pirate has negative connotations. No, really. In an attempt color their actions as more noble they've begun to describe themselves as "open source enthusiasts". A nice PC umbrella that houses the absolute best of intentions and, albeit loosely, some which are not so good.

Now what he's saying is that it's not these open source enthusiasts who are at the cause of this trend but the fact that open source software is now a viable option... why pay?

DW

@David Ryland Scott Robinson (et al) I don't buy your breakdown. Though I must say that in trying to flesh out the intent I gathered from reading it I changed my mind twice. Mind you each time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but for different reasons. The fact that I had to reread it a few times to really understand what he was saying points out the simple fact that Jeff wrote a easily confused set of sentences. Here's the way I believe it to be read: The label software pirate has negative connotations. No, really. In an attempt color their actions as more noble they've begun to describe themselves as "open source enthusiasts". A nice PC umbrella that houses the absolute best of intentions and, albeit loosely, some which are not so good. Now what he's saying is that it's not these "open source enthusiasts" who are at the cause of this trend but the fact that open source software is now a viable option... why pay? DW

He wasn't equating it. What he meant is that typically people who didn't pay for software were pirates. Now days, it's OSS people who don't pay for software. NOT saying that OSS people are pirates. If CodingHorror was truely one of your favorite blogs, you'd recall he's trying to raise money for OSS development on the .NET platform.

Hi Andy,

I had no idea so many would take that wry little sentence so literally! I apologize for the confusion.

I posted an update:

(Update: This paragraph was intended to be tongue in cheek, but has been widely misinterpreted. Dan summarized my opinion in the comments: "in the past, if someone told you they used software and didn't pay for it, the only plausible interpretation was that they were a pirate, because all good PC software cost money. Now there's also good software available for free, so that assumption is no longer correct.")

I thought it was pretty clear that I was singing the praises of free software throughout most of the post. It's quite amazing to me how rapidly open source development tools have evolved since 2000.

"Back when I was in my teens and didn’t know anything but DOS/Windows, I might have been one of them. I pirated a lot of software – a lot of the applications I needed for things like software development were orders of magnitude past my budget (Borland Pascal anyone?)."

Borland Pascal? Geez, didn't that cost about $30 back in the day? I think that's what I paid when I drove over to their offices to get my first copy. Delphi I can maybe see, but Turbo Pascal?

Turbo Pascal, by Borland, was indeed $49, and my dad bought it for me on his DEC Rainbow, circa 1985. Later, I bought it for my Kaypro IV running CP/M around 1988.

Borland Pascal was a higher-end package with big fat brightly-colored manuals that evolved into Borland C.

When we applaud the Software Freedom Law Center for suing companies that violate the GPL, we should also recognize that owners of commercial software licenses should enjoy the same rights to protect their licensing terms as well.

I, for one would never applaud anyone for suing someone that violates the GPL. The last thing I as a programmer want to be concerned about is how people "misuse" my code. This is one reason I'm almost always either using a BSD-like licence for my code, or otherwise disclaim any ownership of the code to which I contributed (if it's under a different licence). While I don't refrain from using GPLed software (I'm using GNU/Linux with KDE as I write this), and am confident enough to look at its code or patch it - I still feel it is possible that the GPL, with all of its complications, has been more trouble than it is worth. And the GPLv3/LGPLv3 certainly adds even more complications.

So I refuse to include yourself in this "we" of yours.

I also feel that the Coding Horror blog did not imply open-source was "piracy", at least not according to the quote in question. What he did say was that such people who once, due to necessity or disrespect, did not pay for using proprietary software, can now use FOSS legally, without paying for it.

Geez, didn't that cost about $30 back in the day?

I don’t remember the price point, but BP7 came with a multi-book manual, which would put the cost way past $30 all by itself. It was definitely higher than that. It’s hard to google for this information, but I did find posting that put the price point at $130 – I don’t know how accurate that is. Living in Germany, where software is routinely sold for twice the price it has in the US, had something to do with it as well.

And even if it was only $30, I would have had to argue and plead with my parents (or save up for a long time), who saw my fascination with computers as a frivolous distraction.

Sorry Andy, you may be right, it's been too many years. :)

I just remember that Turbo Pascal was such an upgrade from JRT Pascal which required you to swap floppies just to compile your program. Oh and I got mine for my Osborne I.

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