If you’ve been involved with the free software movement for any amount of time, you have probably heard this statement before: To understand the concept of free software, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.
This always struck me as a good way to communicate the goals of the free software community, while making it clear that even Stallman believes that there are ethical ways to get paid for software development work. This is a good thing, because many of us would not be able to spend nearly as much time as we have working on free software projects if there wasn’t a way to make a living doing it.
Still, it’s somewhat easy to use this statement to undermine the importance of “free as in free beer” in certain contexts, especially when you extend the ideas of the free software movement into other cultural works. In some areas, “free beer” is nearly as important as “free speech”. After spending a couple years doing a mixture of free and paid technical education work, I’ve found that it’s one of those areas.
I’ve been in positions in which individuals and companies have paid large, medium, and small sums to learn from me. I’ve also been in the position where I’ve paid others to learn, with the hope that my investment in them would pay off for me in the long run. I’ve done this in a wide range of contexts from one-on-one sessions to small workshops to corporate trainings, both in person and online. While I’ve had varying degrees of success and failure through those various efforts, one thing is very clear to me: not one of these commercial training attempts came even close to matching the quality and consistency that we see in our Mendicant University sessions.
While I’m sure there are lots of contributing factors to this effect, I think that the absence of external incentives for both students and instructors at Mendicant University has something to do with it. Our instructors are not paid for their time, and our students are not charged for participating. We do not have any industry partners nor do we promise to help our successful students find jobs upon completion of their course. Any opportunities that arise as a result of being part of our alumni network are organic, and so our students cannot expect that they will personally benefit in a direct way by being affiliated with our school. We also do not use Mendicant University to market products or services to our students, nor do we sell access to our network or anything like that. In short, we are at least as non-commercial as your local Ruby users group, and probably even more so.
In such an environment, our students, mentors, and staff are all participating due to internal rather than external drives. These vary greatly from person to person, but direct economic gain is not among the goals which motivate anyone involved. Officially, the mission of Mendicant University is to support programmers in developing both their technical skills and their social contributions so that they can make a real positive impact upon the world. The key thing about this goal of ours is that we care about not just how we help our students improve, but also what their newly developed skills end up getting used for.
Even though what we do at Mendicant University may lead to financial gains for our students and staff in other areas of life, taking money out of the picture makes it easier to see what our core values are. This is why I think that if you’re trying to emphasize the social value of a project moreso than its economic value, making it “free as in free beer” is just as important as making it “free as in free speech”.
Written by Gregory Brown on 28 December 2011. If you enjoyed this essay, please share it with your friends.