Free vs. Open Source: The Real Difference

Posted on

Today I was reading an article from my favorite Literary Agent's blog, when I he posted some links to arguments against free writer content.  The phrase that stuck out in my mind was "if no one pays for content we're only going to be hearing from those who can afford to write for free".  It was almost like a lightning bolt, because it clarified free vs. open source completely in my mind. 

As a user, I like to get free stuff, and use free stuff.  I don't want to spend money, that can go to other things that are more important (the piggy bank doesn't feed itself, you know!).  So I have already limited myself to content and objects that are produced by those that can afford to do it for free. 

A writer that can write for free would be a writer much like myself:  I have another job that pays the bills, and as such it takes a lot of my time.  I don't have time to devote to my writing to produce a novel in a year and have it be any good (though I do have one really crappy novel that I wrote in 6 months, and would never want anyone to see). 

This is a lot like free software available.  Generally it's produced by someone that has the monetary stability through one position or another to allow their talents to be spread about.  Web comics, many of the Open Source software projects out there, and even some of the operating systems out there all have developers that can fall in this category. 

So what makes the difference between Open Source and Free?  Free doesn't guarantee quality.  Often times it's closed source, and only distributed to be out there.  Because many of those who develop free software can't always devote all their time and energy to producing good content, they generally release something that is passable, and call it good. 

Open Source, on the other hand, not only provides the content, but provides the tools necessary to continue the development of said project.  So while someone may write a barely functional browser, someone else can come in and improve a section and submit the changes.  While any one person can't devote all their time to the entire project, they can devote a little bit of time to properly develop one feature. 

Eventually, through the community that dedicates themselves to the project, the browser (or any other project for that matter) gets improved and becomes a solid, functioning project. 

This may not be a revelation to a lot of you, but the connection was burned into my mind after reading that quote from an article by my favorite Literary Agent.