Is charging for Free Software worse than piracy?

Crowds of singing penguins

Excuse me for getting a bit nerdy in this post. On the weekend I was at the markets and looking for fun examples of Shanzhai gadgets and stumbled across a stall offering software. Usually this is full of dodgy versions of software like Office, Windows, Photoshop, and so on. I’ve no use for these types of applications but hear they ship cheap with bonus malware or other nasties included.

Anyhow, what grabbed me was a copy of Ubuntu, the free Linux distribution, was amongst the software up for sale. For the un-nerdly out there, Linux is like Windows but totally free to download and use. In fact, they even ship free Ubuntu CDs if you request one. (More on Free Software and Linux here if you want to learn more)

I was curious, so asked in my best 101 Chinese (I’m not so sure asking in Chinese actually gets you a better price for anything — I’m obviously not local, but a ginger) :

Me: How much is this?
Shop keeper: 300RMB (around $USD50). You speak good Chinese.
Me: Too expensive! How about a discount, buddy.
Shop keeper(now in English): ohhh that’s my no joking price. You give me price
Me: (inserts 0 into calculator, the real price)
Shop keeper: No. You’re joking. Come on, what’s your price?
Me: (inserts 5RMB into calculator – I figure the CD is worth that)
Shop keeper: No. You’re joking. That’s less than my cost price. You’re handsome. Come on, give me your best price.
Me: How much is cost price?
Shop keeper: 120RMB ($USD12-15)

At this stage I couldn’t be bothered bargaining for something that is ultimately free and I already have so walked away — on which the price of 80RMB was yelled out behind me. Anyhow, it left me wondering if it’s okay to charge for the service of downloading Ubuntu and other free software and putting it on a blank disc?

It isn’t exactly in the spirit of Free Software in my books, but, not illegal like piracy is. As far as I understand it’s not against the Free Software license (GPL) Ubuntu ships with, and I certainly don’t have a problem with people trying to make money from Free Software.

However, is it wrong to try and rip (stupid) folks for 300RMB, or in my case 80RMB, which is still a rip when I’ve seen Windows Vista at 10RMB max. Alternatively, if the buyer is willing to pay for Ubuntu and enjoy the discs then is that install a win for Free Software and the user regardless of the purchasing circumstances?

I’d be interested to hear what others think but first a word from The Free Software Foundation, creators of the GPL license that Ubuntu ships with:

“Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost.

Actually we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If this seems surprising to you, please read on.

The word “free” has two legitimate general meanings; it can refer either to freedom or to price. When we speak of “free software”, we’re talking about freedom, not price. (Think of “free speech”, not “free beer”.) Specifically, it means that a user is free to run the program, change the program, and redistribute the program with or without changes.

Free programs are sometimes distributed gratis, and sometimes for a substantial price. Often the same program is available in both ways from different places. The program is free regardless of the price, because users have freedom in using it.

Non-free programs are usually sold for a high price, but sometimes a store will give you a copy at no charge. That doesn’t make it free software, though. Price or no price, the program is non-free because users don’t have freedom.

Since free software is not a matter of price, a low price isn’t more free, or closer to free. So if you are redistributing copies of free software, you might as well charge a substantial fee and make some money. Redistributing free software is a good and legitimate activity; if you do it, you might as well make a profit from it.

Free software is a community project, and everyone who depends on it ought to look for ways to contribute to building the community. For a distributor, the way to do this is to give a part of the profit to the Free Software Foundation or some other free software development project. By funding development, you can advance the world of free software.”

Source: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html

In short, Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation believe distributors should charge as much as they can and pass some of the profits back to Ubuntu or another project. Freedom is the name of the game, not price, nor circumstance of purchase.

Like experimental music, it’s theoretically good.

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2 thoughts on “Is charging for Free Software worse than piracy?

  1. Pingback: » Is charging for Free Software worse than piracy? » Free Software

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