Linspire: Why's it cost money?

Linspire, formerly Lindows, is an easy-to-use desktop version of Linux, initially marketed as basically a Windows workalike.

So how is it that the creators of the program appear not to have a free version available? My understanding of the GNU Public License was that any piece of software incorporating GPL code had to be released under the GPL. Which means that Linux distributions are made available for free (though you get things like support and fancy boxes and manuals with the pay versions) and the source code is made available. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Linspire - even a download of the product costs money, and there’s no sign of its source code being free on the website. I could understand if perhaps it was only peripherally based on GNU code - I can’t imagine that if I sold an operating system bundled with a GNU calculator program that I’d have to give it away free. But Linspire seems to me to be a Linux distro, same as any other - based fundamentally around GNU code. So how is it that their product doesn’t fall under the GPL?

Generally speaking, if you modify GPL code to work better with your proprietary code, you have to release that. Your own code is your own though.

Linspire have a link to the source on this page

The GPL requires that you make your source code available. It doesn’t require that you give your product away for free. You are perfectly entitled to charge money for it.

So it’s entirely the generosity of most Linux developers that most distros are available compiled and free of charge? If I purchased Red Hat, I could decree that we wouldn’t do that any longer, and just depend on people being too lazy to compile all of it themselves? Would I have any recourse if someone else compiled it and then gave away copies free?

Yes, yes, and no. To quote from the GPL (read it, it’s short), ‘free’ refers to freedom, not price. (As in ‘Free speech’, not ‘Free beer’ or ‘This dog is free of lice’.) You aren’t obligated to give anything away and, indeed, you can charge outrageous prices as long as the market will bear it. What you cannot do is restrict freedoms: Everyone you sell to has the same freedoms you do, including making modified versions and/or giving them away. You are obligated to inform them of that and make it possible for them to make good on the possibility. (This comes down to making the source code available.)

Can you charge for the source code, or only give it away along with a purchase?

I’m not entirely sure about this. You can’t give the binaries away free and charge for the source code, I’m pretty sure about that. I’m certain than you can sell the complete package and give nothing away.

In the real world, source is usually available for free download from a URL mentioned in the documentation. That is sufficient to comply with the licensing.

Linspire isn’t totally GPL. The distro cd includes third party applications for which license fees are paid. That’s the real reason that Linspire continues to cost money. Otherwise, someone somewhere would download the source, recompile it, and offer it for free.

You can of course do that with the free parts of Linspire (I understand that it’s closely based on Debian), but if you try to just put an image of the distro cd up for download, you’ll earn the ire of Adobe, Microsoft, whoever holds the mp3 patent, etc.

As I understand the GPL (IANAL), you could charge for the source, as long as you only gave the binaries to people who bought the source (because anyone who gets the binary is entitled to the source). However, as soon as you sold the source to anyone, they could turn right around and publish it, so unless the charge was approximately the reproduction and transfer costs, you’d be quickly underbid.

Sorry to double post, but I found that there’s a free version, called “Freespire.” It either doesn’t include the licensed binaries, or Linspire is somehow subsidizing them.

Yes and no. If the only business model you had was selling the software, you might be pretty well screwed. Or maybe not, if enough people found it convenient to buy a package from you instead of a few CDs from Cheapbytes. But Red Hat makes a good profit on its RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) server software because it sells support along with its largely GPL’d software. The CentOS project gives away the parts of RHEL it legally can, but since it can’t offer support Red Hat’s business model is not at risk.

A good analogy is the Bible. You still have to pay money for a copy of it from the bookstore, even though it has no copyright. You’re paying for that version of the Bible, not the unique content.

Here’s the relevant section of the GPL:

So you can charge for the source code if you choose option B, but you can only charge a reasonable distribution cost. And you have to make it available to everyone who asks (“any third party”), not just the people you’ve given binaries to.