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Open source: It's about capitalism, not freebies

The term "free software" sounds anticapitalist, but it's about money as much as freedom. Forbes is running an article that profiles several prominent open-source capitalists.

I've been saying for years that open source is about capitalism, not communism.

I used to laugh when Microsoft ignorantly slandered open source as "anti-American" because the inverse was so clearly the case (PDF chapter from Open Sources 2.0).

Now Forbes, hardly a bastion of communist thought, is running an article that profiles several prominent open-source capitalists, including Brian Behlendorf (Apache, CollabNet), John Roberts (SugarCRM), and Rod Johnson (SpringSource). It turns out that these entrepreneurs have found winning ways to turn open source into cash.

No one would question Behlendorf's open-source bona fides, yet he's quick to suggest that it's not about free love: "The term 'free software' made it sound like an anticapitalist movement, yet the reality is, we were hard-core capitalists."

The secret is to use open source as a means to an end (PDF), not the end itself. Open source is a means to cheap distribution, a way to get software into the hands of would-be buyers at little to no cost. It's a way to make the software experience social and less risky, because users can try before they buy and because they can tailor (or pay someone else to tailor) software to their needs for a lower cost than proprietary software affords.

It has these benefits and more, which have made open source increasingly big business. True, there are elements of control in any successful open-source business, making open source more akin to proprietary software than perhaps its adherents would like.

But there's no denying that open source is, or can be, an integral element of a successful software business. It's about freedom, yes, but it's also about cash.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.