At some point in learning about Linux, every new user asks the obvious question: “If this stuff is so good, how come they give it away?” It’s a big compliment, because it recognises that Linux distros and their accompanying software are often first-rate, world-class programs, as good as or better than their commercial counterparts. And it’s not that easy to answer. But we can start to make sense of the idea by setting out two alternate approaches to the idea of history and culture.
‘I did it!’ or ‘We did it!’?
One of these views regards a book, or a piece of music, or a piece of software, as something that pops out of the head of its creator by a kind of personal magic. It doesn’t matter how it got there; when it comes out it’s the sole creation of that individual, and they have the right to own it and exploit it any way they want to.
The other view rests on the observation that people who write worthwhile books are usually people who’ve read worthwhile books, and people who write appealing music and useful software have usually had a lot of exposure to other people’s music and other people’s software. Each new product can be seen as the result of combining a little bit of personal creativity with a great mass of cultural resources which make that work possible. That’s not to belittle anyone’s achievement in producing something new; but it does suggest that the more resources that are made available to people, the better the results will be.
According to this philosophy, then, the more resources we can supply people with, the more they will be able to achieve. If you want Beethoven to write great symphonies, let him hear Haydn’s and Bach’s great symphonies first. Dostoevsky becomes a great writer partly by reading Tolstoy, Tolstoy by reading Pushkin, Pushkin by reading Cervantes. For people to create new cultural resources, they have to be exposed to existing cultural resources first.
One way to do that – the best way we know of so far – is to try to make those resources free; both free as in giving them away, and free as in legally free from restrictions on their use. But to keep the supply of free resources flowing, we need to make a deal with our users; when you produce anything using those free resources, you’ve got to pass it on freely, so that the next person down the line gets the same benefits from your work as you did from the person before you.
That assumes a lot about human beings. It assumes that humans are basically kind, generous and altruistic. The fact that it seems to work pretty well suggests that human beings aren’t as bad as we generally assume them to be.
In order to keep this altruistic state of affairs going, it’s necessary to back it up with contracts and documents. The most important is the GNU General Public License (GPL), originally written by Richard Stallman, which enforces the re-distribution conditions described above. Anyone who modifies material distributed under the GNU GPL must make the modified version available for free, although they can charge a reasonable fee for the costs of copying and distribution.
Is there money in Linux?
But I haven’t really answered the question: how, then, does anyone make money from Linux? There are several ways:
Developing for personal or professional use
Many programmers work for themselves, or for companies with constantly-changing requirements. It’s often part of their job to write programs to deal with these. Once the program’s written and working, there’s no cost to them in making it available to the public. And if someone takes that program on and improves it, then the original programmer benefits too.
The same applies to programs written at home for domestic requirements. Many great applications have grown out of software that somebody wrote to manage their own CD collection, or to help their mother with knitting patterns, or to play electronic drums behind a friend’s guitar performance.
‘Don’t want money. Got money. Want admiration.’
This was the motto of the Fractint group, who produced and maintained a powerful and popular fractal graphic program. Among the Linux community, as elsewhere, developers who create a successful application are regarded with respect and even veneration. And for those who do want money, this practical demonstration of their skills can pay off with promotions, offers of better jobs, book deals, visitors to an ad-supported web page, and so on. Very few people have got rich from giving away the software they write, true — but on the other hand, not many people have got rich from selling the software they write, either. Software profits generally go to large corporations, not small developers.
Selling support services and ancillary software
With the steady growth of Linux there has been a corresponding growth in the provision of support services – of which this book is a small example. The two largest companies in the Linux community, Canonical and Red Hat, both sell a Linux package to commercial users that includes long-term support. Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com) produces specialised Linux packages for particular uses, and creates and sells what they call ‘Add-ons’; extra programs providing additional functionality. Since these are created from scratch in-house, they’re not covered by the GNU GPL. Canonical provides similar services and also runs a shop where users can buy Linux-related products. More recently, Canonical has struck deals with Google and Amazon to provide links to their services. They also provide an online store for non-free Linux software.
Is it acting in the spirit of Linux to make money like this? Opinions differ, but both Canonical and Fedora have good relations with, and a high profile in, the Linux community, because their revenue subsidises the costs of two important free Linux distros: Fedora from Red Hat, and Ubuntu from Canonical, the distro on which Mint is based. Red Hat recently became the first Linux company to turn over a billion dollars in a year, so they must be doing something right.