Only starving programmers are good programmers

The common answer to the “how to make money with FOSS?” question is: Provide the software for free, but sell support, like documentation and so on.

Fortunately, grandmaster RMS provides a clear answer to this question too:

Article from Stallman on this topic:


“The biggest deficiency in free operating systems is not in the software – it is the lack of good free manuals that we can include in these systems. Many of our most important programs do not come with full manuals. Documentation is an essential part of any software package; when an important free software package does not come with a free manual, that is a major gap. We have many such gaps today.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I thought I would learn Perl. I got a copy of a free manual, but I found it hard to read. When I asked Perl users about alternatives, they told me that there were better introductory manuals – but those were not free.

Why was this? The authors of the good manuals had written them for O’Reilly Associates, which published them with restrictive terms – no copying, no modification, source files not available – which exclude them from the free software community.

That wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, and (to our community’s great loss) it was far from the last. Proprietary manual publishers have enticed a great many authors to restrict their manuals since then. Many times I have heard a GNU user eagerly tell me about a manual that he is writing, with which he expects to help the GNU project – and then had my hopes dashed, as he proceeded to explain that he had signed a contract with a publisher that would restrict it so that we cannot use it.

Given that writing good English is a rare skill among programmers, we can ill afford to lose manuals this way.

Free documentation, like free software, is a matter of freedom, not price. The problem with these manuals was not that O’Reilly Associates charged a price for printed copies – that in itself is fine. (The Free Software Foundation sells printed copies of free GNU manuals, too.) But GNU manuals are available in source code form, while these manuals are available only on paper. GNU manuals come with permission to copy and modify; the Perl manuals do not. These restrictions are the problems.

The criterion for a free manual is pretty much the same as for free software: it is a matter of giving all users certain freedoms. Redistribution (including commercial redistribution) must be permitted, so that the manual can accompany every copy of the program, on-line or on paper. Permission for modification is crucial too.

[….] it must be possible to modify all the technical content of the manual, and then distribute the result in all the usual media, through all the usual channels; otherwise, the restrictions do block the community, the manual is not free, and so we need another manual.

Unfortunately, it is often hard to find someone to write another manual when a proprietary manual exists. The obstacle is that many users think that a proprietary manual is good enough – so they don’t see the need to write a free manual. They do not see that the free operating system has a gap that needs filling.

Why do users think that proprietary manuals are good enough? Some have not considered the issue. I hope this article will do something to change that.

Other users consider proprietary manuals acceptable for the same reason so many people consider proprietary software acceptable: they judge in purely practical terms, not using freedom as a criterion. These people are entitled to their opinions, but since those opinions spring from values which do not include freedom, they are no guide for those of us who do value freedom.”


The core piece is: “Redistribution (including commercial redistribution) must be permitted“. His “free as in freedom, not price” drivel is bullshit again, it just means that you can sell your documentation, but, you don’t have copyright on it. So everyone can redistribute it again, and you don’t see a penny of it!

You’re writing a great program and and license it as FOSS. Since you’re such a good hearted person, you think you can get your money later through support, like writing documentation and so forth.

Your program becomes popular, and you write a book, detailing all aspects of your application in it. You publish the book, because you’re a true FOSS warrior, under the copyleft license. Everything is OK for the first weeks…. But, another publisher just copies your book and publishes it again, at a lower price. And you don’t get a dime of it, never again! Since you don’t have a contract with that other publisher, and, because of the license, you can do nothing against it. It’s totally legal.

Don’t forget the mantra: All copyright, except the GPL, is evil.

So the “free as in freedom, not price” is nonsense, because at the end, it is ALWAYS “free beer” too.

Making money through the software is effectively forbidden, and making money through additional goodies, like documentation, is evil too.


“Why do users think that proprietary manuals are good enough? Some have not considered the issue. I hope this article will do something to change that.”

Indeed, in what kind of sick world we live in, where programmers can make money through documentation? This needs to be changed.

I am pretty sure if enough books will be released under a Stallmanite license, then some one will open up a publishing company, which re-publishes those books. There are publishers specializing in all sorts of things, so, why not this one? The only reason we haven’t seen one that does this, is because not enough books are released under a copyleft license.

Such re-publishers will undercut the book prices of the very first publisher that the author has a contract with, because the second publisher has no contracts with any authors, thus its costs are lower.

There could be enough competition points between those re-publishers than the mere text: Price, some extras, like better websites and so on.. the only one shafted would be the author (and the publisher he has the contract with)

I think Larry Wall made a nice sum with the camel book, but, if Stallman gets his will, this will not be possible again. Copycat publishers will show up, if enough books will get published with such a license.

The problem is, the author won’t see a penny once that happens. With books, there are no theoretical other forms of money making (in opposite to FOSS software as example – and even with FOSS software its very difficult. One way to make money with FOSS are books, the very same thing Stallman wants to destroy)

Traditional music (and other) publishers often get criticized that the artist/author gets very little of the money that his work generates. But with Stallman’s vision you get the RIAA from hell – the authors get NOTHING, the publishers EVERYTHING.


4 responses to “Only starving programmers are good programmers

  1. Pingback: The Rape of Eric S. Raymond | Penguin Day

  2. Pingback: Creative punishment | Penguin Day

  3. Perhaps the stupidest thing about all of this is that Perl is not short of decent, informative, free, online (well, not for Richard, possibly) documentation.

    Whatever you might thing about Perl (and I’m deeply ambivalent), you can’t deny that gives you everything you need in a package. Unlike, say, GNU.

    Interestingly, ActiveState seem to occupy a sort of middle ground. They don’t live in a broom-cupboard, like RMS, and they don’t aspire to corporate domination, which is the logical conclusion of RMS’ ludicrous theories.

    All they do is distribute nicely constructed packages of free software, with free documentation, and free links to other resources, in the earnest hope that somebody will pay them for these services.

    I think they’ve been around for something like fifteen years, now, so it’s a functioning model. Oh, and by the way, persuade your boss to shell out $200 on Komodo. It’s seriously good value.

  4. Don’t worry, once programmers can only make money selling support Stallman will be against making money selling support too.

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