Open source software is often called 'free' software. 'Free as in freedom, not free as in beer', goes the slogan (undoubtedly a strange way to put it, since beer is rarely free). But something we must not forget about free and open software: someone, a human, had to build it.
It's not just open source software — a lot of stuff is free to use these days. Here are a few of the things I use regularly that are free:
- Google, and most of their services, from Search to Books to Gmail to Docs.
- Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and so on.
- Python, IPython, and Canopy Express, and the libraries we use: NumPy, SciPy, PIL, etc.
- Graphics software we love: GIMP, Inkscape, and FIJI.
- Wikipedia, which I probably hit at least 20 times a day, and SEG Wiki too.
- The MediaWiki software that powers Wikipedia, the corporate wikis I maintain, and subsurfwiki.org.
- WordPress software, which runs some of the other sites I maintain or write for.
- Several of the apps on my Android (open source) phone.
- Several of the web services I use often: GitHub, TripIt, Hipmunk, Wave.
- The CreateSpace publishing platform which powers our hardcopy books.
- Creative Commons licenses, which underpin all of Agile's public work.
Wow. That list was easy to write; I bet I've barely scratched the surface.
It's clear that some of this stuff is not free, strictly speaking. The adage 'if you're not paying for it, then you're the product' is often true — Google places ads in my Gmail web view, Facebook is similarly ad driven, your LinkedIn account provides valuable data and a prospect to paying members, mostly in human resources.
But it's also clear that a few individuals in the world are creating massive, almost unmeasurable (if you think about Linux or Wikipedia), value in the world... and then giving it away. Think about that. Think about what that enables in the world. It's remarkable, especially when I think about all the physical junk I pay for.
Give something back
I won't pretend to be consistent or rigorous about this, but since I started Agile I've tried to pay people for the awesome things that I use every day. I donate to Wikimedia, Mozilla and Creative Commons, I pay for the (free) Ubuntu Linux distribution, I buy the paid version of apps, and I buy the basic level of freemium apps rather than using the free one. If some freeware helps me, I send the developer $25 (or whatever) via PayPal.
I wonder how many corporations donate to Wikipedia to reflect the huge contribution it makes to their employees' ability to perform their work? How would it compare with how much it spends on tipping restaurant servers and cab drivers every year in the US, even when the service was mediocre?
There are lots of ways for developers and other creators to get paid for work they might otherwise have done for free, or at great personal expense or risk. For example, Kickstarter and Indiegogo are popular crowdfunding platforms. And I recently read about a Drupal developer's success with Gittip, a new tipping protocol.
Next time you get real value from something that cost you nothing, think about supporting the human being that put it together.
The image is CC-BY-SA and created by Wikimedia Commons user JIP.