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Open Source Mentalities

Says one open source guy:

The reason Open source is better, and walks the moral high ground is because we don't demand money for our work just that if you make our product better, you push it back out so that everyone benefits. We help each other, not fight each other. We know that you can build a better product if everyone helps.

This is an example of what I would call your "Type I" open-source mentality. It's this mentality that's given the open source folk a bad name. Moral high ground? Get off your fucking high horse.

I've published sites like Cocoa Dev Central (and will continue to work with Scott to keep it going). I've helped people on mailing lists. I've released freeware and made the source available. I've helped on open-source projects.

But I also sell software too. It's good to know that, thanks to folks such as the above, I'm morally disadvantaged because I like to get paid for work. Because, for example, I like to eat and because other people use what I create to help feed themselves as well.

Taken to the extreme, this type of open source mentality seems a lot like communism. "Everyone should do what they do for free so that everyone can benefit." History has shown this this approach to wealth-spreading (and morality?) really doesn't work.

In other words, I'm all for supporting open-source software, for helping people out, for bettering products. But if I ever get on such a high horse that I try to tell people that I'm morally superior to them, I hope someone kicks me in the nuts. Hard.

14 Responses to "Open Source Mentalities"

  1. Giving Morally Superior To Selling? That's Unpossible!

    NSLog doesn't like to be told that people who help others and ask for no recompense are doing a better thing than people who sell their help to others. Apparently the reason that that's not true is that helping people...

  2. A side-comment:

    We know that you can build a better product if everyone helps.

    This is exactly the way to build a crappy product. The best products, historically, have been driven by small, determined teams.

  3. It seems you have two complaints, here. The first is that the poster is on a "high horse," and the second is that his principle (that selling closed-source software is wrong) has nasty consequences.

    First, I don't see what's particularly objectionable about trying to work out the moral high ground on any particular topic. While it may be annoying to find someone objecting to your practices on moral or ethical grounds, I'm sure that you respect that person's ability and right to arrive at his own moral calculus. The author of the comment is trying to do the right thing, and that often involves pointing out the wrong thing.

    Second, your analogy to communism (at least as it was implemented in the twentieth century) is weak. People are not forced at gunpoint to contribute to open-source projects. People are not prohibited from selling their goods and services. What the open-source people seem to be advocating, rather, is that when a product is sold (or given away), it should come with the source materials that allow others to modify the product to their changing needs. This is certainly a step away from free-market capitalism, but so are things like labeling regulations on medicines, or forcing cars to be sold with seat belts. I don't think that history will look unkindly on either of those decisions.

  4. Don't take the rant above too seriously. If the original author wanted to get into a real conversation re: the morality of donating some of your free time vs. trying to earn an honest living (and giving away as much of your free time as is left), then I'd gladly provide a far better reasoned response.

    As it stands now, my response was almost as flippant as the original remark I quoted. Communism probably doesn't work, but it seemed like it. Gunpoint can be literal or not, too. How many people do things not because they want to or because they believe in it but because they fear that someone else will point (labels, accusations, opinions, etc. - not "literal" guns, but things which "fire" "ammunition") something at them.

  5. Actually, just to be a pain-in-the-ass economist, history does look unkindly on the decision to mandate seat belts in cars. It's increased the number of car-related fatalities. Seat belts made drivers feel safer, and they drove more recklessly to compensate; the number of driver deaths remained statistically approximately constant, but the number of pedestrian deaths increased.

    On a related topic to labelling regulations, the FDA approval process has probably killed a couple million people by denying access to lifesaving drugs during their ridiculously long approval process.

  6. Open-Source and Morality

    Erik has posted a small blurb about Open-Source software and the morality of giving software away vs. selling your goods. Apparently there is a common understanding among OSS proponents that giving away your work results in some kind of morality...

  7. There is nothing morally wrong with writing software for profit. People need to make money to live... that's just a fact. More importantly, someone willing to tie their standard of living to writing software tells how important the software is to them. Slack off a little, and you may not be able to buy groceries. Slack off a little in open source software and at worst, you may be taken off the team.

    Though, money shouldn't be the only motivation in writing software. This is what I do like about open-source. It's about sharing and exchanging information. While I believe sharing and exchaning information is a good thing, morally it's no better or worse than writing for profit.

  8. The problem as I see it—and I may be just repeating the consensus here—lies with people who think giving labor away is morally superior to selling labor. I believe it isn't.

    In fact, if anything, giving labor away is deeply morally flawed because it reduces the aggregate market value of labor for all, thereby making it harder for others to make a living by selling their labor or the products of it.

    Look at it this way: if GM started giving cars away, Ford would have them tied up in an anti-competitive practices lawsuit so fast their collective corporate heads would spin.

  9. Tyler, I am aware of the hypothesis that links seat belt use to aggressive driving, but I have not seen a significant amount of research supporting it. I'd be happy to look at any links you provide, of course. And on the FDA issue: while it's certainly true that delays in approving medicine cost lives, it's also true the approval process saves the lives of those who would, in the absence of a regulating body, be given ineffective or harmful treatments.

    But to quibble about particular policies is to miss the point; it is obvious that some market regulation can exist without amounting to communism. Thus, we can't use the failure of communism as the sole justification for the position that a particular market regulation is doomed to failure.

    On the other point, I find it difficult to understand how one can take the position that "giving labor away is morally flawed" unless one likewise takes the position that all of the following are morally flawed acts: giving vegetables from your garden to your neighbor, helping a friend move, escorting an old lady across the street, treating a sick person who cannot afford to pay. All of these actions reduce the aggregate market value of labor.

  10. I really like this commentary a lot. It's very interesting.

    Here are my thoughts and reactions --

    1. The originally quoted pro-open source guy has a vulgar understanding of what it does and does not mean to do open source. He doesn't represent all open sourcer's opinions, but there are many who share his understanding of the issue and take a similar position. It is an errant position with a number of flaws, and Erik calls this position the "'Type I' open-source mentality."

    That seems like just a summary, but I also want it to be an affirmation of things that I hold to be true and right.

    2. Howard comes in with two points. First, he states that he has a failure to understand why Erik has a qualm with the original quote. Well, Howard, you're right in saying most of the things you say in that paragraph, but the hole in your understanding seems to be a failure to notice that once people do work out their moral culculus they talk a lot of smack about being at the top of what they feel is THE morality hill. No one likes that. It is elitism and moral bigotry.

    Howard's second set of points were fairly effectively argued against later on by Erik and Tyler.

    3. I agree with Tyler's point about market regulation going bad. Unfortunately, he may have chosen two less than solid examples. I am confident that there are much more solid examples of market regulation that didn't work out. Prohibition might be one, but there may be holes in that as well.

    4. Matt T. is just plain right as far as I can see. I guess he is a little too strong in breaking out the "should" though. I think it is possible for someone to successfully write software when motivated solely by the potential for money.

    5. Jeff's summary and counter-position is funny and poignant, and I think he is really on to something. I think that Howard's later counter point is necessary in refining and balancing Jeff's view though. Perhaps giving away labor that has a certain value is still alright, because the value is so low that the recipient would not otherwise be able to pay for it. Secondly, perhaps giving away labor to those that have no means would also be morally acceptable. I don't know exactly how this would work out, but I am interested in the idea.

    6. Howard's last post had three points. I think I've included the results of the first and the third earlier in this post. So, I'll address the second point now, because it too is a good one. Marget regulation can occur without creating communism or any other non-capitalist economic structure. In fact, capitalism needs market regulation to exist otherwise there would be constant market failure.

    Apology for my long rant -- I am working on my Philosophy final paper which is due tomorrow and I am all in that college paper writing mode. Of course, if I was actually writing a paper I'd have to talk even more and support all the things I had said and point out that others didn't provide support for their propositions, but I think that would just make this all the longer.

  11. I actually only have one complain with the original quote, and it isn't related to "morality" one way or another. It's related to the flawed assumption that open source software = free beer. It's not! Open source = free speech. Even Richard Stallman has made it clear, in terms of the GPL anyway, that you can charge any amount of money, as much as you want really, for the distribution of binaries and source code using the GPL. Of course, you can't stop someone else for distributing the software for free or less money -- but if you charge reasonable prices and provide decent commercial value for the money (tech support, attention to feedback, development speed, community involvement, etc.), then it's all right to assume most people will choose to obtain the software from you.

    Lots of companies are making money off of open source software. For some reason, I don't see a lot of "indie developers" using open source development methods combined with selling software for profit, but there's no reason why they couldn't if they thought it would be worth their while. The software I'm working on (don't worry, none of it will compete with FSS 😉 ) will be sold for a fee and will also be open source. I can hardly wait to see how it works out.



    P. S. My response to the possible comment of "but if you make your software open source, other OSS projects can steal your features!" is that you can "steal" theirs as well. That's what's great about open source. It puts everyone on a level playing field.

  12. Open source is free (beer): an urban legend?

    An interesting discussion over at Erik Barzeski's blog NSLog(); reminded me of my thought processes regarding the commercial viability of open source software that have occurred over the past few months. You see, Erik had a major bone to pick with a...

  13. I've already made money selling GPL'd software. Nothing beats writing GPL drivers for hardware you aren't giving away for free 🙂

  14. Tech.blogs...

    Some tech stuff... The Rise of Interface Elegance in Open Source Software - Acts of Volition - another great essay...