In Defense of Free Riders

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 07, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Free riders, people who contribute nothing to the software they use, are to free and open source software (FOSS) what illegal downloaders are to the Recording Industry Association of America. They're people who are perceived as getting away with something, and are the subject of periodic rants. Really, though, I don't see what the fuss is about.

Yes, FOSS projects might be better off if everyone who used their software contributed code, time, or cash. Projects could be finished faster, and core team members might be able to work full time on what is now an avocation. But the complaints would seem more valid if more projects made more effort to welcome newcomers and orient them. When the difficulties of being accepted into most projects are so notorious, it's hard to sympathize with denunciations of free riders. If you scare people away, don't expect much sympathy when you complain about the lack of contributors.

More importantly, nothing in any free license obliges users to contribute to a project. Free licenses are about how you share or copy the software, and include no language whatsoever about what you should give back. You might think that someone who distributes software under another name or takes advantage of a BSD-style license to make code proprietary is a sleazy con artist (I tend to think that way myself). Yet what they are doing is legal, and, if you know anything whatsoever about human nature, you can't convincingly pretend that you're surprised.

Besides, whatever happened to the idea that FOSS development is about someone scratching their own itch? Coders gain work experience, net cred, personal satisfaction, the respect of peers, and often a salary from FOSS projects. Expecting help, gratitude, and/or cash on top of all these benefits is unrealistic. The fact is, FOSS is set up largely for those who are intrinsically motivated -- people who do things for their own personal reasons. Extrinsic rewards are simply not a large part of the FOSS social contract, although everyone is glad when enough extrinsic rewards exist that they can work on FOSS full-time.

Anyway, you can rant all you like about freeloaders, but you're mostly wasting your time. Nobody has found a way to stop free riders or entice them into contributing, any more than any movie or record executive has found a way to stop file sharing. And if movie and record executives with all their financial clout and access to law makers can't do anything to slow file sharing, you can be sure that relatively penniless FOSS projects are even more powerless against free riders.

No matter what anyone does, free riders will continue to exist -- and, regardless of what you think about them, there's not a damn thing you can do about them.

The Gaiman Perspective

Instead of wasting time with useless complaints, you might want to cultivate a different attitude to free riders. I'd suggest the same perspective that fantasist Neil Gaiman offers in a video about people sharing copies of his books on line.

At first, Gaiman says, he held the conventional view that a book share for free on line was a theft from him. But then he noticed that, "in places where I was being pirated ... I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me from being pirated , and, when a new book wold come out . . . they would sell more and more copies." Experimenting with briefly offering a free download of his novel American Gods for a month, he found that, during that month, sales increased by 300%.

Polling audiences at his talks, he soon discovered why: roughly ninety percent of people discovered their favorite authors by being lent a book. Gaiman concluded that when you offer a free download, "what you're actually doing is advertising -- you're reaching more people."

Gaiman's discovery suggests to me the way that projects might look at free riders. Instead of seeing free riders as users who take and give nothing in return, perhaps projects should look at them as free advertisers. Every copy of an application that is being used is potentially a portal for other people to discover FOSS -- and some of those others may become genuine contributors.

That may be true even of free riders who are re-branding the software. If those who repackage and LibreOffice are any example, they often point to the mailing lists for support. At other times, people who have had a bad experience with a repackager stumble across the community on their own. They may come to complain, but a few stay and become contributors.

Most, of course, never contribute. But considering that few projects are organized to accept a mass influx of new members, probably that is just as well. The point is that so-called free riders may actually be contributing to FOSS indirectly.

Rethinking the Obvious

Many people in FOSS support file-sharing in some form or other. Yet, where free loaders are concerned, they often fall back on conventional economic models that they have rejected for development and distribution.

In some ways, this reliance on old models is understandable. The conventional models are full of colorful metaphors -- for instance, "free riders," "the tragedy of the commons," and "there ain't so such thing as a free lunch." By contrast, alternative models are not nearly as memorable.

Yet, having already rejected conventional models in other areas, maybe the community needs to explore the possibility that free riders need to be re-examined as well. Most free riders may be acting for selfish needs, but, just possibly, they help the software they use far more they or anyone else imagines.


  • free riders

    Also in defense. I am a senior citizen. on a fixed income, I always try to send people to linux. I dumped windows a few years ago and dont look back. I have learned linux on my own and with the help of forums. I am not an engineer, nor computer expert. my contribution is helping propagate linux as an operating system that is better than windows and does not cost an arm and a leg. Also it will run on older systems which will help keep older pc out of the dump. So there is other ways to look at what some call free riders.
  • In Defense of Free Riders

    I am not a sw engineer any more having left that long ago to focus on networking/internet technology.

    I've used alot of Open Source.

    My contribution has been to drive a LOT of business to open source.

    My view is that most Open Source is free but the consulting services provided by those various open source groups is not. That's how many of them make their living... consulting.

    Whether its "for fee" consulting engagements for:
    - training
    - customization
    - upgrades
    - migration

    That's been my contribution. I think there are very many others that do the same thing. Often that's forgotten by people when they say "those people don't contribute".

  • Bruce Byfield article: In Defense of Free Riders

    Years ago Australian Stewart Emery founded Actualizations (?), a rewarding school of Consciousness. One of the exercises reviewed in a magazine article was transformative, in fact thrilling. Gloss: Emery lengthily informed the seminar group how urgently everyone needs love.

    Then he told them to look around that room and see if they could find, right there and then, the love so indispensable to their joy and well-being. All were compelled to look at one another, 'Will you love me? Will you love me?', sad and embarrased.

    When misery peaked, Emery asked them, Who is available to do any loving? And this broke up the party laughing. Then he said, in effect, 'Start again. And this time love and love and love...pour forth so much beautiful, true love from your inexhaustible heart, and your Power, that this room cannot hold it. The whole *universe* cannot hold all that love.

    They did, and magnificence (like Linux) filled their field, happiness, love, authenticity, peace, wisdom, on. And for this too he waited until it reached a tremendous and transcendent fullness. When he himself was utterly forgotten while they were luxuriating in one another, he softly asked, "Is there anyone here who doesn't feel loved?"

    Those participants were overwhelmed by the lesson, ebullient, "over the moon", empowered and wealthy in the real sense. THEY UNDERSTOOD WEALTH OF A GROUP, versus the poverty of taking.

    Linux/Open Source. This is the way. This is our wealth and staggering, astonishing accomplishment. And by this we are introducing a vital, indispensable awareness for the planet, not to mention that we are obviously *taking* the insuperable computer field into the philosophy, the Oneness of Heart. For we on earth are one composite Life. Many humans are far too unevolved to be other than free-loaders. Here they learn, osmotically. Other hearts will be drawn in that otherwise remain cold, cynical, frightened of their cut-throat rapacious providers like Bill Gates. How exciting and wonderful it feels.
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