So, how could programmers make a living?

Richard Stallman in Gnu’s Bulletin Vol. 1 No. 1, February 1986:

There are plenty of ways that programmers could make a living without selling the right to use a program. This way is customary now because it brings programmers and businessmen the most money, not because it is the only way to make a living. It is easy to find other ways if you want to find them. Here are a number of examples.

A manufacturer introducing a new computer will pay for the porting of operating systems onto the new hardware.

The sale of teaching, hand-holding and maintenance services could also employ programmers.

People with new ideas could distribute programs as freeware, asking for donations from satisfied users, or selling hand-holding services. I have met people who are already working this way successfully.

Users with related needs can form users’ groups, and pay dues. A group would contract with programming companies to write programs that the group’s members would like to use.

In the intervening twentysomething years much practical experience has been gained, evidenced by large businesses employing many programmers following these models. Well, except for the last one, which has turned out to be insignificant so far, though perhaps there remains lots of experimentation before it plays out.

What the above misses is that most software is not created for licensing (commercial or public) and most programmers’ jobs do not depend on licensing, much as most musicians are not in the pay of the recorded music distribution business.

5 Responses

  1. Kevembuangga says:

    Stallman ideas about money have always been totally out of whack.
    Fortunately Open Source still works because…
    “Software is merely a Performance Art”

  2. Lucas says:

    And there’s always the question of why *should* programmers make a living at it, just like with musicians.

    Kai, I love your point. Though I would say that it’s innovation and product design which age more than code.

  3. Kevembuangga,

    Interesting article, but I don’t really see how it explains why open source works.


    Re *should*, indeed.

  4. Kevembuangga says:

    I don’t really see how it explains why open source works

    Open source works because most of the value is in the daily working and reworking of the code and the licensing is just an added scam.
    Therefore one can make a living without caring much about licensing.

  5. I agree that the need for maintenance facilitates programmers getting paid, regardless of license. I made this point a bunch in a recent talk, mostly as a way of contrasting software and cultural production, see and it is implicit in the last paragraph of this post.

    However, that’s a small part of how and why open source works overall.

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