The Problem With Being Free
Slashdot published a story today about a school teacher in Texas who chastised a student for handing out Linux CDs. It seems she was disturbed by the propagation among her pupils of the idea that any software can be legally distributed for free.
The teacher’s lack of familiarity with reality is laughable–and regrettable, of course, given her position as an educator. But the obstacle that misconceptions like hers present to Linux adoption is much more serious.
The leader of the project that apparently supplied the student with Linux CDs suggests that the teacher’s ignorance can be attributed to a conspiratorial teachers’ union infiltrated by Microsoft. I think that such a conclusion is a bit paranoid. As much as I’d like to believe that Windows only remains dominant because of an elaborate international conspiracy, the real reasons for its prominence are more complicated–if less exciting–than that.
Money and value
Instead of a Microsoft conspiracy, fundamental misconceptions about the relationship between money and value seem to be at the heart of the teacher’s paranoia.
As good participants in a capitalist economy, most Americans (and plenty of other people, too) are infected at an early age with the idea that the value of a product directly correlates with its cost. If something is more expensive than something else, it’s only because it’s better–and if expensive items aren’t the best in the sense of being useful, they nonetheless have symbolic value as reflections of their owner’s wealth, which can be more important than utility.
Consequently, anything that’s cheap or free (as in free beer) must be either of inferior quality or dubious legality.
In my personal experience, such notions present an immense obstacle to the success of free software. If I tell friends to use OpenOffice, they assume that, given its non-existent price tag, it must be vastly inferior to Microsoft Office–or, worse, that it’s illegal.
The infamous Jerry Lee Cooper (if he’s a real person) similarly asserts that free software only works thanks to the theft of intellectual property.
I don’t think the free-software community can do much to change the culture that creates such problematic associations between cost and worth. But through education and demonstration of the real and immediate value of free software, we can erode the misconception that software is only useful and legal when it costs money. Indeed, combating that erroneous belief is the only way that desktop Linux will ever get off the ground.