[music-dsp] To open source or to not open source...

Ross Bencina rbencina at iprimus.com.au
Wed Jan 28 01:21:58 EST 2004

Hi Andrew,

I recently read "Free as in Freedom", a book about GNU project founder
Richard Stallman, there's an online version here:
It might give you some insights into the GNU free software philosophy. It
certainly help me understand the differences between open source and free

Andrew "Silver Blade" Greenwood wrote:
> > In my personal opinion, an open-source application with paid-for
> extensions
> > is not a good model for making money, unless perhaps you have a team of
> > sales and marketing people like Netscape/Mozilla did for so many years.
> Is there a particular reason for this?

Well, it doesn't sound so convincing today as it did yesterday, but a few

- Making money from open source development often seems to involve having a
"business arm" which some how capitalises on an opportunity created by the
open source product. In the case of Netscape/Mozilla i think this involved
selling services and expertise which only the principal developers were able
to offer. Often these services are offered to large corporate customers who
can pay big $ -- I can't think of a paralell in the music software business,
perhaps the education sector is the closest thing. One key is that you need
to actually have the business people available to capitalise -- you can't do
it yourself by spending most/all of your time writing code. On the other
hand, even a small closed-source shareware application can bring in money if
you pay attention to detail and have something people actually want to pay

- I also think you may encounter a situation where your paid-for extensions
are competing with free open-source extensions developed by other people.
This isn't so much of a problem, but it's worth keeping in mind.

The above is pretty pessimistic, partly due to the fact that I have yet to
see someone make money from an open-source arts-oriented application. If you
want to make open source "go for it" as someone else said, but if you want
to make money there are some pretty successful models from the business
world. Reason is a great example of giving users exactly what they think
they want with packaging and pricing aimed at maximising return on

> The general idea would be the main application itself
> (sequencer/multitracker) would be open-source and maybe even free of
> The plugins for it (virtual synths and effect units) would be add-ons and
> maybe could be purchased with the main application as a package.

If you can partition your market so that the people that buy the packaged
version (perhaps even shrink wrapped in stores) don't know/care about the
free version then this could work well. I'm not a marketing expert though,
so don't take me too seriously. Note that if the open-source version isn't
well documented/promoted/supported you're unlikely to get much input from
open-source developers.

> I just hoped that maybe developers could make my program better in
> turn to make other programmers interested in working on it (and plugins
> it.)

If the developers aren't being paid for it they are likely to want something
else out of it. Perhaps the program provides them with a platform to explore
their own ideas, perhaps they want to learn about writing software by
working with you, perhaps they wanted to write a program just like it but
decided to help you instead (you should seriously consider finding another
project to join/merge with yourself btw.)

> > If you release the source, and sell a
> > commercial version someone else is likely to compile a free version --
> > need to consider how you will differentiate your for-fee offering from
> > someone elses free version.
> That is a valid point. I was thinking of maybe continuing with my own
> commercial version as a separate program (fork the code, so the existing
> code is used as a base for both versions.) But, I don't really like the
> of my efforts going unrewarded.

This may require some tricky licensing if you want to be able to
re-incorporate bug fixes and positive changes to the open source version
into your commercial version. However there are certainly people who take
this approach. Mozilla had 3 different licenses to choose from, Qt has a few
depending on what platform you are on. Usually this kind of licensing would
require a legal team and a well considered business case -- probably things
you don't yet have if you're asking for advice on musicdsp ;-)

> > The kind of people who typically get involved in voluntarily
> > code to open-source music applications aren't interested in commercial
> > factors. I'm thinking specifically of programs like SuperCollider and
> > I'm not sure what the situation is for psycle, Buzz etc.
> Hmm. I like the idea of open-source/free software, as I know it's great to
> find a really useful program that's free of charge. But, I really would
> something in return for all my hard work.

There are of course rewards other than money, but you probably need money to
live, so working out a balance is important. I guess you have to ask
yourself what it is that you would feel comfortable receiving as "something
in return". Some motivations I can think of:

- contribute to the furtherment of the arts
- learn about medium/large scale application development
- feel good about having built something with your own hands/mind
- make something which serves as a "business card" for getting future
- get recognition
- make a living
- fulfilling a higher purpose
- etc

Everyone balances the above and other factors according to their own beliefs
and circumstances.

Personally I am motivated to develop music software because of my own
interest in music (I perform live using my own software), and by the
knowledge that other people are also benefiting from my software by making
their own music. Making software is one way in which I choose to participate
in the global music community. Making software for me is firstly about
music, and secondly about subsitance -- if I need to get other work to
subsit, then I do, of course like any other musician making money from music
is the ideal. Many makers of commercial music software have adopted an
approach which is guided by business management practices -- perhaps this is
an unavoidable pragmatic step which is necessary to maintain a full time
staff and to grow a business -- certainly there are many who believe this,
and Propellor Heads, who you seem to be familiar with, appear to be a good
example that a business oriented market-driven approach to music software
development can succeed.

> > I guess you need to think about:
> > - who will be using the software (as end users)?
> Musicians mostly... "Reason" users who want something similar to use on
> Linux, or with the capabilities of a decent MIDI sequencer built-in.

You should assess who these users are and what other software they have
available to them. Personally I would guess that "Reason" users would grow
out of the program after a while and move on to more professional tools
(there are already open source competitors to Logic Audio on Linux for

> > - who will be developing the software (open source contributors)?
> Hmmmm... It'd need to be someone interested in music application
> programming, but they're probably already involved in other projects.

You might want to consider joining forces with some other projects rather
than being another under-resourced start-up project.

> > - who will be developing plugins/components (these should be thought of
> > clients/end-users, not as contributors)?
> Anyone. Maybe some coders from RentACoder (I intend on getting most of the
> synth/effect modules developed by other people, even some of the graphics
> will be supplied by other people.) Open-source plugins could be made
> available too.
> > - who will be purchasing the software?
> Musicians (I guess!) and people wishing to code new device modules.

There are many different kinds of musicians. Sometimes they don't buy
software (their parents do, or they use unlicensed copies), sometimes they
are hobbyists with high-paying careers in other areas, or they are starving
musicians, or professional musicians. There are musicians who have never
used a computer for music, even if they own one, and there are musicians who
only use their computer for music. If you look at the range of prices of
commercial music software you can see that different products are targetting
different socio-economic strata. I'm not necessarily promoting "market
segmentation" as a fundamental principle, but saying that the people
purchasing your software are "Musicians" is just too broad to usefully guide
your decision making.

> It's worth noting at this point that I intend on adding a VST host module,
> to ensure compatibility with existing plugins. The exact technicalities of
> how this will work, I am unsure about at the moment.

Good luck with that.

Sorry about the philosophical rant, but ultimately I think the choice of how
to run a software development project is a big decision, and I encourage you
to seek advice from as many people as possible.


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