Foss and Profit

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Mon Jun 7, 2021 · 976 words · 5 min
Tags :  foss

Often, when people think of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software), they don't consider that it can bring monetary benefits. It is a prevailing myth that open source software is not compatible with a successful business model. This is part of the reason why open source tends to remain a hobby for most people and never develops into a "profession".

A Small Talk on FOSS

The core of this misunderstanding is the word "Free". FOSS need not be free of cost. "Free" refers to the software giving users certain rights and freedoms. I'll borrow text for the four essential freedoms from the GNU website.

These never mention that the program needs to be provided free of cost to users. Software that is free of cost is better referred to as "gratis", which does not contain any ambiguity as to the word "free". Often, FOSS users or devs will refer to "free" as "libre" to avoid misunderstanding.

Why will users pay for code that is open source?

You are not selling your code. You are selling a product, that is not your code. What can you sell? A compiled binary of your code, or hassle-free deployment services for your application. You can sell server services for your application. Users will pay for the service you provide. I'll list some examples that I like.

You can find many more examples where open source software helps earn money. As you saw, this profit need not necessarily come from selling the software itself. You can sell services that are built around your software.

Market Competition

One insecurity around open sourcing software that often comes up is the possible competition you face from forks. Take the example of FastHub I listed above. A user forked that repository and created a version with all pro features enabled by default. He then posted it on F-Droid. The upstream developer was not happy with that move.

Your open-source application faces a constant threat from forks. These forks may not be as simple as just enabling some locked settings. Forks can add new features and create their own identity. Since the code is open to all, you need to create your identity around the services you provide. Large open source organizations often have good support channels for customers that help them stay in demand.

Is it viable?

Both yes and no. This depends on the scale of your application and the number of users. Do you receive enough donations? Do your services get enough users?

A new project does not start generating revenue from day one. You keep working on it, and somewhere down the line, you get contributors and happy users who willingly donate to keep your project alive. When you feel you have enough users, you can think about making that initial investment to launch your paid services around your software.

Conclusion

Selling FOSS or FOSS related services is a win-win for users and developers. Users will be paying for software that they trust and like. The developers can continue to develop ethical software and keep the community alive. The market will get aligned with ethics and that's in favour of all of us. Creating an atmosphere where users pay for FOSS can heavily incentivise ethical software.


1. Since Ardour is open source, you will find binaries available in repositories of Linux distros. While that is available for free and it is totally legal to do so, it is recommended to donate to the project as a means of supporting development.

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