Last week, Bryan Lunduke, the renowned developer of multiple kitschy little apps that nobody is too concerned about, made a post on his blog where he claimed he was attempting to better serve the community by open sourcing all of his software under the GPL.
Unfortunately, what should have been good news turned out to be little more than a PR stunt. Rather than actually open sourcing his applications, Lunduke decided to hold the source code hostage: demanding users sign up for a repeating monthly subscription to enable him to continue developing his software under an open source license.
Lunduke claims the only way he could release his software under the GPL is if he was making at least $4,000 per month in subscriptions, a sum which (according to him) is below what he’s currently making by selling the applications individually. The idea that Lunduke is making north of $4,000 per month via one time purchases of games like a Linux distro simulator is already difficult to believe, but if true, shows the most glaring omission of logic in this entire project.
There is absolutely nothing in the GPL that prevents you from selling free software. Absolutely nothing. The idea has always been that the software is free in the sense of what you are allowed to do with it, but not necessarily without monetary value. This is the reason the free software movement has taken to the term “libre”, as it means liberty rather than without cost.
Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer..
With this in mind, nothing stops Lunduke from continuing with his current sales model and opening up the source under the GPL at the same time. If Lunduke truly makes enough money with his current distribution, there is absolutely no reason to assume the same would not be true if the source of the software was released under the GPL.
Consider that all of Lunduke’s software is currently released completely without DRM, meaning that anyone is able to upload their binary copy to a filesharing site. Yet, even without piracy protection in place, Lunduke manages to turn a profit. Why? Because the people purchasing his software legitimately want to support its development.
Nobody purchased “Linux Tycoon” because they couldn’t figure out how to pirate it, they purchased it because it was only a few bucks and the money went right to the developer. If the source for the game was open, that situation is unlikely to change. Frankly, it would be more trouble to build the game from source than simply finding somebody who hosted a binary version of it.
So if Lunduke could release the source of his software right now under the GPL and keep selling it just as he always has, why doesn’t he?
There are only a couple of conclusions we can draw, none of which very flattering. Either Bryan Lunduke simply doesn’t understand the GPL, or he thinks the community is too cheap to continue supporting his work unless they sign up for recurring payments ahead of time.
Putting aside the broken logic which Lunduke used to launch this campaign, the implications of its failure or success put a undue strain on the community and could cause undesirable side effects.
Consider that this campaign succeeds: Lunduke get’s his $4K a month and opens up the source for this software. This will set an uncomfortable precedent, showing that a developer with even marginally popular wares can guilt the community into not just supporting him or her with one time donations, but signing up for monthly fees.
But where does it end? How long is the user expected to pay a monthly fee for a piece of software which everyone else is getting for free? How long until the early users who supported the developer enough to sign up for recurring donations begin to feel abused?
On the other end of the spectrum, if this campaign fails, it will be used as “proof” that the free software model can’t generate income. I can already see next weeks blog post, where Lunduke bemoans how he really wanted to open source his software, but apparently the community just didn’t want it badly enough. The guilt trip has already started, with Lunduke’s comment under the “What If It Doesn’t Work” section of his original blog post:
If, come next week, we haven’t come close to the goal — then I hit the refund button. Everybody who contributed gets a full refund and nothing changes (so there is no risk). I continue to develop this software in a closed source way and get a little bummed out [I'd prefer to not get bummed out].
Already the community is being blamed for the possible failure of this campaign, on the very day it starts. Reading this, we are left with the image of poor old Lunduke, who just wanted to help out the community, but couldn’t do it because his fans weren’t as supportive as he had hoped.
Value, Or Lack Thereof
Perhaps the biggest factor in this entire campaign, and the one which demands the most delicate of touches, is whether or not the software of Bryan Lunduke actually deserves to be supported at this level.
There is no question that games like “Linux Tycoon” have a certain appeal and succeed at being a quick time waster; but there is also no question that $5 is just about the top end of the price scale for this kind of software. After 10 minutes you will have seen everything “Linux Tycoon” has to offer, and while I certainly don’t have any remorse about spending my $5 to purchase the game originally, there is absolutely no way I would pay a monthly fee for it.
His other software, such as “Illumination Software Creator”, “BLABA”, and “Radical Comic Designer” are all variations of the same theme: rapid development of simplistic content. Software like this has had its place for years: people want to make games or apps but don’t have the prerequisite knowledge to actually program them. So rather than spending the time and effort to learn how to develop native applications, they turn to rapid development tools like these to make passable products in a fraction of the time.
Again, there is no question that the software accomplishes its goals, but is it really worth a subscription fee? Is a tool designed to let you quickly generate web comics really worth $4,000 per month, when there are so many other free software projects out there that are willing to give away their code without the song and dance? Does supporting Lunduke and his software further the overall free software community as much as say, donating to Slackware?
Clearly, whether or not you feel Lunduke’s particular brand of software is worthy of your donation is an absolute matter of opinion. Nor is anyone attempting to claim that Lunduke puts out bad software. The issue here is whether or not the people signing up during this subscription campaign are doing so because they legitimately want to support Lunduke and keep games like “Linux Tycoon” going, or because they have been fooled into believing that doing so somehow furthers the legitimacy of the GPL.
With time rapidly running out, Lunduke is already backpedaling on the end date for his subscription campaign:
The deadline I set was end of day Monday. Which, to be honest, was a fairly arbitrary deadline (I simply needed to pick some point to declare as the “end”). If we can get at least close to the goal by that point, I will gladly extend the deadline out a few days to give enough time to achieve the goal.
If the total subscriptions were anywhere near what his original goal was, this could be interpreted as loosening up the reigns a bit to make sure the community got what it wanted…but as the donations sit at only $100 above his half way mark, this simply comes off as desperate. If he doubles the original timeframe just to meet his monetary goal, is it still a success?
There are likely many reasons that Lunduke’s campaign failed to generate the money he was looking for, but it’s certainly not because people aren’t willing to support the development of free software, or that free software by its nature is without monetary gain. Even though I have the distinct impression those are two claims we’ll be hearing a lot after this is all said and done.