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The Myth of the Freeloading User

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June 1, 2009, 1:37 pm

A few years back, when I was volunteering at a local hospital's front desk, a delivery courier came in and asked where the lab was, since he had a rush delivery.

As I started to give him directions, I looked down at the package he held, curiosity getting the better of me. Among all of the official print and biohazard warnings, were the words "Live Animals: Leeches." Given that I was sitting in the lobby of a moden health care facility in the early part of the 21st Century, this was a delivery I certainly wasn't expecting.

Since then, I have learned that, indeed, leeches are often used in medical techniques, particularly where surgeons and physicians need a patent's blood to not clot. They provide a natural, low-impact method to prevent coalguation... so even if the "ick" factor is really high, leeches still have a valued use in today's medicine.

It's with this bit of knowledge that I approach the whole "leeches" in open source meme that's been floating around of late.

Michael Scharf of the Eclipse Project got things going last month in a blog entry that railed against "freeloaders": those users who use Eclipse (because it's free) and don't contribute back (because--according to Scharf--they're parasites).

This has been said before, though not quite so vehemently. This ComputerWorld article reminded me that Dave Rosenberg of MuleSource has often lamented consumers of MuleSource technology who didn't contribute back to the MuleSource code.

Over the years, this argument keeps coming up every once in a while, and every time it does, I find it short-sighted at best.

First off, while no one knows the percentage of open source users who actually give back to the project that they use, I'd predict it's somewhere around one or two percent, on average. And that's a semi-educated guess, mind you. Whatever the number is, it's never going to equal 100 percent. There will always be more users than contributors...and that's a good thing.

I reject the notion that any user is a freeloader or a leech. At the very least, they are vectors for your software, getting it out there in real-world environments to show to other potential users. They'll see it in action, ask about it, and then perhaps pick it up for themselves. Maybe they'll buy it, contribute to it, or maybe they will just use it for free, too.

This perpetuating chain of free users doesn't sound that great, either, especially to commercial vendors. But here's the real gift these users bring to a project, where they're contributing to it or not: they're going to use the software.

By use it, I mean bend it, twist it, mash it, smash it, and shove it onto platforms and into tasks it was never designed to do. And yes, they will break it.

And when they break it, they will either complain to you or they will complain to the rest of the world. Isn't that great?

Actually, it is a good thing, though at the time it may seem like a pain in the butt. What's actually happened is that you've been handed a opportunity to make your software a little better. Use it.

Stop complaining about leeches and freeloaders; get in front of them and put them to good use.

 

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