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Who does the anti-corporatism feeling serve?

I have, as a Free Software developer and enthusiast, a particular dislike for the anti-corporate websites, and the general anti-corporate feeling that seems to transpire from some of the communities that form around so-called “Free Software Advocates”. You probably know that already if you read me frequently.

In the past few days I have been again in open contrast with those trying to spread “hyperboles” which I’d sincerely call “sensationalistic name-calling”. Similarly to another point this started with one statement by Carlo Piana, who asked to stop calling “piracy” what actually is unauthorised copy. I do agree with his rationale that it shouldn’t be called that way, but I’m a pragmatic, I live in this world, and like it or not, the word “piracy” as synonym for “unauthorised copy” is an unfortunate reality. Given that, you have two choice:

  • keep trying to get people to use the “right term” ever and ever — the so-called GNU/Linux method;
  • use their own weapons against them and (as I suggested) call piracy the disregard for copyleft licenses like the GNU GPL (note my use of words here: copyleft licenses; disregarding MIT and BSD is definitely much harder and yet they are Free Software licenses).

As I said I’m a pragmatic so it’s nothing new that I’d go with the second choice. But too many people either still think they can change the world with negative activism, or at least they pretend to, and suggested to call everything proprietary as piracy…. facepalm moment gals and guys.

I still think that most, if not all, of the people involved in anti-corporatism who pretend to care for Free Software, have no idea of what kind of effort is needed to create and maintain Free Software. Sure they might not want to be paid to do what they do, and they might have a different kind of job, so that they can do their job without “dirtying their hands” with proprietary software and proprietary vendors, but most of us, write software for a living, and usually the money come not from writing just pure Free Software — you rather have to compromise.

This does not mean that there is no business case for Free Software; we do know that a number of companies out there do Free Software mainly and can make money and pay developers to do their work, but they don’t make enough money to pay all of the people out there without at least partly compromising, leaving part of their business logic out of Free Software. Nokia and Intel, Sun before and Oracle both before and now, Canonical and RedHat, SuSE and even Apple… they all do lots of contributions to Free Software and yet their main business varies widely, just in a couple of case being mainly Free Software! Google, Yahoo and Facebook also work on Free Software, publish new, pay for maintenance of already present… yet they are not even software houses mostly (or originally).

If Free Software would require people not to be employed by companies producing any kind of proprietary software, the number of developers would be much, much reduced. Not everyone lives alone, many have a family to maintain, some have further complications, most don’t live like a hippy like Richard Stallman seems happy to. So what’s the solution? A few people, including the FSF last I checked, insist that if Free Software won’t pay for your living you can get another job, or settle for a lower wage.. but again, that is not always possible!

Do these activists put their money where their mouth is? I sincerely doubt so, as they most likely have no idea of how people sustain themselves in this environment while still keeping working on Free Software. I’ll try to give you myself as an example, but I’m sure there are situations that are more complex than mine (and quite a few that are easier, but that’s beside the point).

I don’t have to pay a rent, I’m lucky, but I’m still not working for myself alone, as I live with my mother and she’s not working. I have bills to pay each months, unhelped, that comprise phones, Internet and power, all three of which are needed for my Free Software work, as well as my “daily job” and my general living. I have obviously to buy food and general home supplies, and at the same time I have hardware to maintain, again for all the three cases. I have had a few health troubles, and I still have to both keep myself in check and be ready in case something else happens to me. I could do without entertainment expenses, but that would most likely burn myself out so I count those as an actual need as well.

In all of this, how much of the money I get is derived directly from Free Software? I’ll be honest: in the past five years, donations would probably have covered three or four months of basic need, without any saving. And mostly, that is covered by a handful of regular contributors. And before you tell me I should feel ashamed for having said this, I wish to say that I’m still very thankful to everybody who ever sent me something, be it a five euros donation, a flattr click, a book, a hardware component, or a more consistent money donation. Thank you all! Those are the things that let me keep doing what I do, as I feel it’s important for somebody.

I have written a few articles for LWN, but even that only covered a part of what I needed; the main reason is that being a non-native speaker, the time I need to write a proper article is disproportionate, again this is not to say that LWN does not pay properly – they actually pay nicely – it’s my own trouble not to be able to make a proper living from that. I actually tried finding a magazine in Italy that I could be paid to write for, getting rid of the language barrier, but the only one who ever published something (and the first article was an unpaid try) was the Italian edition of Linux Journal that has stopped publishing a couple of months later. Oh and by the way, this kind of work is also considered “proprietary work” as articles, and most books, are as far as I know not usually licensed under Creative Commons or otherwise Free licenses.

So if my pure Free Software work is not paying for bills or anything, nor my writing about it is, what am I to do? I considered for a while getting a job at the nearest Mediaworld (the Italian name for the German chain Mediamarkt), selling consumer electronics. I could do that, but then I wouldn’t probably be willing to contribute to Free Software in my spare time. What I actually do instead is, I work for companies that either make proprietary software (web software, firmware, or whatever else) or that commercialise Free Software (sorta, that’s the case for LScube for the most part). When I do, though, it often ends up with me working at least on the side for Gentoo, or Free Software in general.

I have already described my method a few months ago, I would like to say that a lot of my work on Ruby ebuilds in Portage has been done on paid time for some of my work, and the presence of gdbserver in the tree is due to a customer of mine having migrated to a Gentoo-based build system (to replace buildroot), and gdbserver was to be loaded in their firmware. A lot of the documentation I wrote also is related to that, as is my maintaining of Amazon EC2 software, …

And before this can be mistaken.. I have received more than a few job offers to do Free Software work. Most I had to turn down, either because they required me to go too much out of my way, or because of bad timing (I’m even currently in the mid of something). I also turned down Google, repeatedly, because I have no intention to ever come to USA because of my health trouble. The best offer I had was from a very well known Rails-based hosting company, I was actually very interested in the position and would have accepted even a lower wage than what I was offered, especially because Gentoo was well part of my responsibilities, but they never followed through; twice.

So anyway, what has all of this to do with the original statement, and my problem with anti-corporatism? Well, as I said most of my customers are using Free Software for developing appliances and software whose business logic is still proprietary. It’s better than nothing in the fact that they are still giving me money to keep doing what I’ve done in the past five years and counting. But at the same time, they are wary about Free Software, if they were to (like a few already do) think that Free Software is either too amateurish, or is trying to undermine their very existence entirely, they might decide that their money should not be spent on furthering those ideas.

And nothing is more dangerous than that, because if there is something that Free Software in general needs more, is competent people being paid to work mainly on Free Software. And the money often is in the hands of those companies that you’re scaring away with your “Fight da man” attitude; the same companies that Microsoft did their best to spread FUD to, regarding Linux and the Free Software and Open Source movements. I’d be surprised if there is nobody in Microsoft’s offices right now that is gloating, to see how the so-called “Advocates” are doing their best to isolate Free Software from the money it needs.

Ah yes and I was forgetting to say: if you don’t think that money is important for Free Software… take a hitch and don’t even try commenting, I will be deleting such inane and naïf comments.

Comments 3
  1. I have been reading your blog for some time now, and (assuming that you don’t put ‘disproportionate’ time into writing them), the standard of English in your average post easily meets the requirements for any magazine that I’ve ever read.Is it that editors have rejected articles of yours in the past, or is it just you meticulous attention to detail? 😉

  2. Jon required me at least one or two iterations to get the grammar and form right… and this is with a more thorough attention to the details than I usually put on a blog post.Actually, you can see how heavy the workload is for an editor by looking at the “git history”:… of “Autotools Mythbuster”: (and that actually made me notice that David sent me another merge request, will handle it tonight if I can).

  3. The non-native thing is a barrier. Imagine if you will his analogy of the noise-to-signal ratio. Reading a well written document it just flows. If you stumble over the meanings and grammar due to choice of phrase then the ‘noise’ distracts from the signal and makes it harder to grasp. My wife (Jamie) pointed this out to me prior to his post but then she is an English major and has been giving me advice. We are a team 😉 and she reads sometimes flameeyesMagazines have many contributors. If two articles remain to choose for publication you may take the easier to read choice instead of the more substantive that needs some polishing.Many of LJ’s articles I’ve noted are heavy on polish and light on substance. Some so heavy as to be of little use to me. I quit subscribing.

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