Open-Source Software Is For Activists

November 22nd, 2010   Submitted by Gabriel Weinberg

Free and open source software has literally helped accelerate growth and innovation in the global economy. Moreover, it has done so at an increasing rate as software becomes embedded in everything that we do (and is produced).

Open source software refers to software in which the underlying source code is available to see, i.e. is open. The free part refers to the licenses that accompany the software that enable anyone to freely use, adapt and build upon them. It’s free as in speech, not as in free beer (although most of this software is free in the upfront cost component as well).

To illustrate why these properties are so important, take my company (DuckDuckGo) as an example. DuckDuckGo is essentially built on top of (and with) free and open source software. I use the FreeBSD operating system; I code in the Perl programming language; I use the nginx Web server to serve pages to users; I use the PostgreSQL & Solr databases to store data. All of these pieces of software are used at no cost to me or my company.

What this means is I can build my company much cheaper than would be the case without this software, which has gotten better and better over time. In fact, DuckDuckGo is self-funded. And I’m not alone. There is a whole crop of startups that can be founded with little, to no, funding because this software exists. That means more companies are getting started, which means more innovation and, in turn, accelerated growth.

Of course, this all begs the question why and how this software is being created in the first place. There is a core group of people that believe in this cause who spend their free time making free and open source software. Then there is a larger group of people like me who use the software and occasionally submit patches, bug reports, and small programs that help this core group.

It’s a community. And it’s a community that has a large return on investment. This is why I’ve committed to giving away 10 percent of our income to free and open source software projects. It’s a recognition of the contribution it has given to me and my company. So next time you evaluate software, I’d look for open source alternatives, which at this point may actually be better!

Gabriel Weinberg is the founder of a privacy friendly search-engine, DuckDuckGo, and blogs frequently about founding start-ups.

10 Responses to “Open-Source Software Is For Activists”

  1. HelioNo Gravatar says:

    I appreciate the article. I recently started using DDG and like it very much.
    Philosophically, I am very sympathetic to the open source movement, and do not believe it is ethical to threaten people for copying ideas. However, as a microsoft .net developer, I have been reluctant to make the jump to open source tools. I very much like having a large, well funded, group of people operating under the profit motive who depend on making me happy as a developer by supplying me with tools, resources, and support when I need it.

    I think paying for a tool like Visual Studio makes alot of sense, and the massive family of developers out there who share their knowledge is a benefit. It is true that the large tech corps sell crap as well (vista anyone?), but I think that is a danger in all business dealings. Caveat Emptor.

    I am a man driven by the profit motive and while ideas may be and should be emulated and copied, why should I make it easy for the competition by easily exposing my source to would be competitors?

    Can anyone point me towards any commentary on this particular subject?

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Helio, I know exactly what you mean. But I’ve got great news for you, there are still companies that take advantage of the profit motive in the open-source community. Take, for example, Ubuntu. Linux is the open-source operating system. Ubuntu is a style of linux that is still completely free and open-source, but is run by a company called Canonical. Check out http://ubuntu.com and http://www.canonical.com/about-canonical to see what I’m talking about.

      There is still a team of experts you can call upon to help you, if you need it, however, the source code is completely open and tweakable by its user, and READABLE by its users. Oh yeah, and it’s free and it’s a superior product than proprietary software.

  2. Helio, check out this interview I did with Satish Dharmaaj: http://www.gabrielweinberg.com/blog/2010/03/satish-dharmaraj-on-g etting-traction.html

    He was the CEO of Zimbra, a company that sold for a lot that open sourced their technology and was a key part of their customer acquisition strategy and ultimate success. It’s an illustration of model that can make sense while still pursuing a pure profit motive.

    But even if it doesn’t make sense to open source your offering, it still could make sense to plug some of the profits back into the open source community, i.e. to forward particular aspects of open source offerings that your business relies on.

  3. HelioNo Gravatar says:

    Watching it now, Thanks!

    I shall have to pause my current project and consider if creating it as an open source project would make it more successful and whether it would be worth the time cost to skill up on the open source tools available before continuing.

    Thanks for the article and your reply.

  4. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    It should be noted that the only reason that open-source software developers have licenses and copyrights is to PROTECT their software from being patented by some corporation which will PREVENT the community from using the software freely. If there were no IP laws threatening the free use of code, then there would be no need to get licenses for open-source software. However, that is not to say that some open-source developers couldn’t instigate an act of civil disobedience by releasing software into the wild, not getting a license, and then when some corporation patents the software, continue to use it and spread it freely despite the threat from the federal government.

    • HelioNo Gravatar says:

      I’m not really sure how open source applies to webapps as it seems like a silly idea to give away one’s hard effort so that others can simply put it on a server and get into the game as well without performing any of the work. I don’t mind if they copy my features conceptually and improve upon them, as that will drive the competitive process. I just can’t see handing over my sourcecode so that anyone who wants to build it and put it up on a box will instantly be a competitor.

      I know that companies will try to patent ideas they didn’t come up with, and I think its a smart move to patent the ideas first, and then make it part of the license that anyone can use the idea.

      • ssNo Gravatar says:

        helio wrote: “I don’t mind if they copy my features conceptually and improve I don’t mind if they copy my features conceptually and improve upon them, as that will drive the competitive process. I just can’t see handing over my sourcecode so that anyone who wants to build it and put it up on a box will instantly be a competitor.upon them, as that will drive the competitive process. I just can’t see handing over my sourcecode so that anyone who wants to build it and put it up on a box will instantly be a competitor.”

        actually, someone else having to copy your stuff conceptually and create it from scratch, rather than have the source code, is a waste of resources just to get to around to where your complete product is. imagine only if they had instead used those resources to better your product, which you then are also able to use freely and benefit from, if the license is open source.

        what if they just take your source code, and put out an identical product with little to no effort? then you will all look the same, and to differentiate yourselves, you make changes and improvements. i think that’s probably the more competitive scenario.

        being the sole owner of the source code may make it more likely that one will rest on their laurels and innovate slower.

  5. RyanNo Gravatar says:

    The desire to have a motivated group of profit and production driven people behind the products you use is part of open-source software just as much as it is a part of proprietary/corporate software. Sun Micosystems (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Sun_Microsystems) is one of the driving forces behind the open-source movement, was born in the heart of Silicon Valley and has dealings with nearly every major tech company.

    The open-source community is what really makes the software special. The contributed support that comes from passionate user/developers sets the products and services apart from that of a corporation with limited resources and narrow-minded goals.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      I started using Netscape the moment it came out. Then I switched to Mozilla. Little did I know I was helping the open-source movement grow, along with all of its implications.

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