The Programmer As (Starving) Artist

OSDN head honcho Robin "Roblimo" Miller thinks that many programmers may end up writing code without getting paid directly for their work. He's got a point.

Discussions about code as poetry and how code and art differ from each other are not new, but the growing popularity of free software among both developers and users may make software developers more like artists than they have been in the past in one very important respect: A majority of programmers may end up writing code without getting paid directly for their work. Perhaps, before long, "starving programmer" will be as familiar a phrase as "starving artist" is today.

If software is free, how will programmers earn a living?

Ive spoken and written enough about free software for audiences unfamiliar with the concept that Ive probably heard and answered this question at least 1000 times. The stock answer goes like this:

Most software isnt the shrink-wrapped, off-the-shelf stuff sold at your local computer retailer, but custom programs written (or highly customized) for commercial users. Think of software as a service, not a product, and you will see how it is easy to make a living writing software even if underlying programs like operating systems and middleware are developed by programing cooperatives and given away, free of charge.

Then we go on to talk about how so-and-so makes a good living doing custom Apache installations or setting up ecommerce Web sites based on free software. There are plenty of people and companies making money with free software one way or another. (We write about some of them on NewsForge from time to time, as regular readers well know.)

But when you trot out this line of thinking in front of a group whose members have spent most of their working lives writing or selling proprietary software, they tend to be skeptical. When they listen to a free software advocate, what they hear inside their heads goes like this:

Bye-bye, software sales
Bye-bye, sweet success
Hello, emptiness
I think Im going to cry
Bye bye, my money, goodbye

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