Keeping up with the giants

Keeping up with the giants

The title is a word play on the term 'Keep up with the jones' the idea that for people to be happy then they have to emulate their neighbors in terms of achievements and assets or fear being left behind socially.

A criticism of free software I hear frequently is "This (proprietary software) costs $(x) million dollars to make. How can people give away the same quality software at no cost?". It may seem like a valid argument initially but there are a few issues with statements like these.

The most obvious, you are free to charge for software. There are no restrictions on making money on free software. While there is a very good chance that the software will become no-cost after people have purchased it and used the freedom to redistribute; regardless, this is still a good contribution of society. Generally if the software is good and you have a means of payment, people will support it to keep the working going. In that sense, free software could be one of the most pure examples of basic capitalism at work. Supply and demand without restriction.

The bigger issue is that, to think purely along the lines of 'x money = x output' is to blind ourselves to the potential of communities over a non-free business structure. There are many non-free programs that have hundreds of millions of dollars of development time, Adobe Photoshop is a good example. Despite the huge amount of work put into projects like that, free software with similar functions such as GIMP or Krita have produced similar results with less that 1/100th the money backing them up. They did not sell out their morals to produce the same functional results but infinitely better ethical results.

The idea that a video game needs a Hollywood action movie like budget to be 'fun' - is to miss the point of what games can be. When a perfectly viable an entertaining game can be made on a fraction of the budget while respecting your freedom is possible.

It is possible to have excellent output without needing the budget backing of a small nation.

When we compare free software with non-free software, to make the argument about budget is to miss the point. If we were to let the big players dictate the rules on how to engage people in software, free software would have never happened. In terms of the money we would think it takes millions of dollars to achieve anything and in terms of software ethics, we would think we would have to perform a power play an restrict the users in order to release software.

The psychological factor to this is the idea that more money has been put into a project somehow means it is a better product and yet there is no basis for this. Money is not the issue, it is how the program treats the users. Money is a tool, not a quality measurement device.

If we restricted our thinking to these lines, we would have never even tried to make an alternative. The GNU operating system is a excellent example of what happens when one person (Richard Stallman) goes out and tries to make a difference in the world to then find many like minded people to help achieve something amazing.

There has potentially been billions of dollars in free-software development but it has been diffused over many decades and tens of thousands of projects, all the while turning out amazing results without restricting the user in the process. This should be considered one of the great achievements of the 20th century and beyond.

Even with that amount of money, it is only a small fraction of money that non-free software has controlled directly and untold amounts that are not accounted for by restricting the users. Without that money, software that respects you would still be made out of the pure passion for creation and sharing.

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