The Satisfactions of a Free License

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 15, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Offer free software developers money, and they are practical enough to accept it. However, what keeps many of them at work are the intrinsic rewards, not the external ones.

This observation is hardly new. However, I have a new appreciation for it since I published my recent book, Designing with LibreOffice under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License.

Working with a free license, I now appreciate first-hand, is ego-boosting, altruistic, confounding fun, as heady as Napoleon brandy, and as down-the-rabbit-hole as Alice in Wonderland, unlike anything else I have ever experienced. It makes me feel like Robin Hood, surprising someone at the last moment by handing them the money to pay their taxes -- the only difference being that I haven't robbed anyone in order to have that enjoyable moment.

Being Useful
To start with, releasing the results of three years' work under a free-license confounds expectations. I had imagined that after decades of free software, more people would understand that such an act is well within the limits of human nature, but apparently many still have a lot to learn. I've already lost count of the people who tell me that no one would do such thing -- people who, told that I just did, shake their heads in incomprehension and walk away thinking me an idiot. Maybe with their closed minds, the lesson won't stay with them, but I love the possibility that I've done my bit to prove that humans are more bundles of greed intent on their short-term advantage.

I'd be lying, too, if I didn't admit that the book is one long, "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah" to a a certain few people. Success, as the coaster by my place at the table reads, really is the best revenge.

Then there's the contrast between the years of work and its reception. At the end of many work days, I used to wonder if I would ever finish the book, and if anyone would want to read it if I did. Sometimes, I would have five or six days of that mood in a row. At the most, I thought, a few hundred people might be interested.

Imagine, then, my unbelieving delight, when Designing with LibreOffice reached 12,000 downloads in three weeks, with the prospect of another 8500 copies due to distributed shortly on a magazine's DVD. The interest makes me feel like Sally Fields at the Oscars, gushing into the microphone as she received her award, "You like me! You really, really like me!"

The unexpectedness makes the reception all the more satisfying. I can explain away the welcome with the fact that a free-license also means that a cost-free version or two is available, or the fact that people have seen my name around for long enough that they are curious about what I might produce, but, for whatever reasons, people are interested.

Even more importantly, people are not only interested, but finding the book useful. Thanks to my editor, Jean Weber, the LibreOffice manuals are among the best in free software. However, manuals focus on how-tos, while I have tried to give equal time to why users might want to make a certain choice -- or, sometimes avoid it altogether.

In other words, I have tried to write tutorials as much as how-tos, and, in doing so, I have been told several times, I've provided an overview of LibreOffice that no one else has done. Although I have not discussed some features such mail merge, I seem to have been among the first to offer a general impression of the software.

If that is true, it is personally satisfying, because over a decade ago I tried repeated to give such an overview, only to produce some 1200 unpublishable pages. I always intended the book to be useful, and to find that at least some people are finding it so is more satisfying than I say. In fact, I've been told repeatedly that Designing with LibreOffice fills a missing niche. In fact, aside from the manuals, I'm told that mine is one of the first books to have "LibreOffice" in the title.

Contrary to my fears, I have somehow managed to produce something that is not only useful but something that, with a few periodic revisions, could continue to be useful for years to come. While I wouldn't want to plan out the rest of life in every detail, I'm pleased to have an outlet for continued altruism and meaningful work for some years.

The reward of hard work
However, while altruism and a sense of usefulness are important motivations, I would be lying if I pretended that they were the only satisfactions to be received from writing the book.

You see, I plan more books for the future, and one way to give me the leisure to write them might be a modest crowdfunding campaign. The interest in Designing with LibreOffice could mean make any such campaign a success.

That might be the most satisfying result of all -- that my first major contribution to free software would enable me to make additional ones.

Perhaps that sounds perverse, that the reward from one work is the means to produce more work. However, personally, I wouldn't have things any other way.
The story goes that Isaac Asimov was once asked if he would prefer to write or have sex. He replied that he could write twelve hours a day. I don't altogether agree with his implication, but I can definitely appreciate it.
Using a free license is a win-win for both the writer or programmer and their audience. After the last few weeks, if anyone should ask me why I use a free license, I'm simply going to reply, "Because nothing else so useful is half as fun."

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