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Wake up, Linux hippies: No one 'morally obligated' to give back

Open source selflessness does not exist

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Open...and Shut For years, open-source advocates – including me – have demanded greater open-source contributions from the world's largest beneficiaries, from Google to Morgan Stanley and the US Department of Defense. Now Amazon is on the firing line for not giving back commensurate with the benefits it receives from various open-source communities, and the thinking behind the arguments are as wrong-headed as they ever were.

Open source, it turns out, is doing just fine, with or without Amazon. And always will.

My friend and open-source expert Glyn Moody does not agree. He believes that contributing to open-source projects is both rational and a moral obligation:

Amazon's contribution to the open source world seems pretty minimal. That's not only ungrateful, it's unwise. It's in Amazon's best interests that the projects it depends on thrive: the better they become, the better Amazon's infrastructure and products will work....

[Contrast this with] Google, which does choose to support that community in a variety of ways, because it knows that it is not only the right thing to do, it is the rational thing to do.

Perhaps. I've made similar arguments in the past. But it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that open source tends to do just fine without all the normative arguments about who should contribute this or that.

Self-interest regulates open-source software quite well.

In a recent interview with Argentina's La Pagina, Linux founder Linus Torvalds notes that "[s]upporting all the random hardware out there is what most of the actual [Linux] programming effort goes into." Guess what? Many of those contributions come from the companies that manufacture that hardware. Just take a look at the list of who contributes to the Linux kernel (PDF), and it's immediately apparent.

Those companies contribute because it suits their self-interest. The minute it doesn't, they'll stop.

Torvalds touches on this in the same interview:

I think there can be *many* ideologies [that motivate open-source development]. I do it for my own reasons, other people do it for _their_ own reasons. I think the world is a complicated place, and people are interesting and complicated animals that do things for complex reasons. And that's why I don't think there should be "an ideology".

I think it's really refreshing to see people working on Linux because they believe they can make the world a better place by spreading technology and making it available to people more widely - and they think that open source is a good way to do that. That's _one_ ideology. I think it's a great one. It isn't really why I started doing Linux myself, but it warms my heart to see Linux used that way.

But I _also_ think that it's great to see all the commercial companies that use open source simply because it's good for business. That's a totally different ideology, and I think that's a perfectly good ideology too. The world would be a _much_ worse place if we didn't have companies doing things for money.

So the only ideology I really despise and dislike is the kind that is about exclusion of other ones.

Torvalds' pragmatism is refreshing, and instructive, particularly in light of the finger-wagging at Amazon. To Moody (and Joe Brockmeier, who echoes and amplifies Moody's arguments), I say, if it's rational to contribute to open-source projects, Amazon will contribute. The moment its perceived self-interest is furthered by contributing rather than free-riding, Amazon will contribute. And not until then.

What many overlook is that contributing to open-source projects is a huge burden, and not just a blessing. It's hard work to clean up code, run the internal legal gauntlet, and all the other things that are required to successfully participate in an open-source project. For many companies it's just not worth the bother.

And while Moody and Brockmeier rightly laud Google for its open source contributions, they seem to have forgotten that Google went years as a huge consumer of open source before it contributed much of anything back, and that to this day it hoards far more than it contributes. Even its most open projects, like Android, are open only on Google's preferred terms.

Google contributes out of self-interest, not because of some divine should.

Like every company, or individual, for that matter. Each of us contributes (or doesn't) out of perceived self-interest. Now, it may be that Amazon will come to feel that contributing to open-source projects like Linux correlates with its self-interest, as Google has, and will open up over time. Fine. But let's not pretend that there are compelling normative arguments that demand it do so on anyone's terms but its own and those of the open-source licenses it uses. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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