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Free software stays free

"What if my Linux distributor goes bankrupt?"

This is a big sticking point for some people conditioned by closed source, commercial software. Consider what happens to all NT-based systems when Microsoft ceases production of it. It stagnates and eventually becomes so obsolete as to be impractical to continue to use. Now, consider what happens if RedHat, SuSE, Mandrake, Slackware, Caldera, Corel, et. al., suddenly cease selling GNU/Linux. Granted the news would be flooded for some time, but the operating system would continue to be developed. It's "alive" so long as a single person can modify the source to improve it. Please note that the majority of software in the packages sold by these distributors is GPLed. It is open to anyone to examine, modify, give away, sell, whatever.

Think of it as a seed collection. The distributors have collected the best seeds they can find, tested them to see that they grow well together, boxed them up with instructions and a telephone number for growing tips, and sell the whole package to growers. The seeds are out there for anyone to gather, and there are many people out there who come up with a new variety or species and offer it to other gardeners. You can buy a package or go gather your own. You're free to grow yours as an artful indoor Bonsai garden; I'm free to grow mine as a wild weedpatch in the yard. Either way, and this is the critical point, no one, two, or a hundred seed packagers can choke off your or my supply of seeds, nor prevent either of us from passing any new varieties on to others.

Now back to software after the gardening interlude. :-) Suppose Linus Torvalds has a brain fart and decides that he will start selling a closed source operating system based on some modified Linux kernel and that the Linux name can no longer be associated with the open source kernel. So what? It would be something like hording a bag of air, "you can't breathe this or see this without paying me." Reply? "Ok. Now, the latest releases of FreeBSD, OpenBSD, GNU Hurd are advancing nicely. All the former Linux distributors are now releasing their packages of FormerLyNUX, based on kernel 3.1.05 put out by the FormerLyNUX development team."

Sometimes it helps to look at extremes. I hope the extreme examples above illustrate the situation a bit better. The bottled water analogy is often made in this context. A bottled water company is not selling you water; they are selling you service. You buy it with the idea that they've made an effort, which you consider worth their price, to locate, filter, and package water in a manner that suits your tastes. But if they decide to quit selling water, or decide to quadruple their price, will you die of thirst? I doubt it. You'll just turn to another source.