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The Need to Give: Free Software

by on March 22, 2010

I wrote the following essay in August of 1998 and it was published in ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge by Autonomedia. I just reread it because I’ve been thinking about how much the markets and Open Source and Free Software have developed in the last 12 years. I am going to post it first and then follow up with some more recent thoughts in a new post.

Here it is:

In late August, 1998, O’Reilly Publishing sponsored an Open Source Developer Day in downtown San Jose-emerald city as ghost town-in a hotel that conventions only partially fill. In a ballroom-conference room with a raised stage for speakers and a few hundred filled seats, the big figures in open source came together to discuss the “movement.” Eric Raymond was the keynote speaker. His talk focused on the “enterprise market” and Linux. Linux, the phenomenon, has made recent notice in the economic press, as have several other free software projects. Raymond delivered an entertaining tour through some of the more recent achievements of Linux. But it was limited to the entrance of Linux as a serious player in the corporate server and high-end markets. It’s an interesting story, and one that can be measured somewhat. But the Linux phenomenon is much larger-a worldwide spread into private and social use at the personal and PC level as well as small networks.

This vast market is of no financial significance in Silicon Valley at the moment but may prove to be of social and even economic significance globally. There was little discussion by any of the participants of the larger social impact of free software; instead, discussions centered on business models and legal licensing issues. The calm was, however, punctuated by Richard Stallman’s declaration that John Ousterhout was a “parasite” on the free software movement. Ousterhout was on the business models panel, describing his company, Scriptics’, planned support of the open source core of Tcl, the language he nursed to adolescence, and their simultaneous planned development of proprietary closed tools for Tcl as well as closed applications. During an open-mic period, Stallman said it was interesting to see IBM, a representative for which was on the panel, entering in to the free software community by supporting the Apache project while John was planning to make the fruits of the community into closed and in his view, harmful, proprietary products. Some people clapped, others jeered. Without Stallman’s provocation, the “conference” may have ended as a press conference rather than a town meeting for the free software community. Some of the more official attendees were said to be embarrassed by Stallman. Most seemed baffled by the dissension and controversy. Many of the old-timers just groaned, “Oh, there goes Stallman again.” Some were worried that the hackers would be bear the brunt in the press.

A week later a vice president from a software company thinking about going open source talked to me after he got a full report about the conference. “Stallman is a Communist,” he said. “He is not!” I laughed. “He’s not even a Marxist.” The closest Stallman ever came to talking about politics was to mention the U.S. Bill of Rights. Software developers aren’t known for articulated or nuanced views of political economics; many aren’t quite sure how to deal with subjects other than technical capacity or profits-let alone with the possibility that dissension and debate might be good. Stallman’s very presence makes some in the free software communities uncomfortable, like a cousin that shows up at the wrong time, is too loud, and says the things no one dares to say. Foremost amongst the traits that make the denizens of Silicon Valley uncomfortable is Stallman’s contempt for the commercial. He is indeed contemptuous of it, of profit for its own sake-especially when it’s at the expense of the free circulation of ideas and software. This is what many executives, hip though they may be, find so unsettling about him: expressing his views in Silicon Valley is like declaring contempt for gambling in Las Vegas. But his antics make perfect sense in the context and community of free software developers.

It strikes me as a mark of consistency and mental precision that he persists in his strict interpretation of free software. His legally technical discussions of the GNU General Public License are brilliant expositions of what some call “viral” licenses-one that legally binds would be vendors and distributors of free software to keep any modifications in the source code free and open to further modification. The GPL has been very good to Linux: the GNU project spent considerable time and money crafting a clear and legally binding and it has served as a haven for many a free software developer. Linus Torvalds among them was spared the need to craft a license and set a precedent for the open and distributed development of his project.

Stallman’s GNU project has done incalculable good for free software. No one in the communities denies it; but his tenacity makes many of them nervous. And he doesn’t make the “suits” comfortable either-nor does he want to. He doesn’t carry a business card; he carries a “pleasure card,” with his name and what appears to be a truncated personals ad, or a joke, “sharing good books, good food…tender embraces…unusual sense of humor.” He clearly isn’t looking for a job or a deal. Friends perhaps or “community,” but not a deal. He’s not against others making a profit from free software, though; in fact, he encourages people to make profitable businesses and make substantive contributions to free software and free documentation. Like every other “hacker” at that conference I talked to, he is a pragmatic thinker. He knows that no business would come near free software if it did not offer a successful business model for them. He’s just not willing to compromise with those who try to combine open source with closed and proprietary software: if an open source project is cannibalized or “parasitized” by the development of closed products, he argues, it will hinder the free flow of ideas and computing.

John Ousterhout’s plans for Tcl are just plans at the moment. He’s playing with the possibility of supporting the open source development of Tcl while developing proprietary tools on top of it. He acknowledges that there will be some tension between Scriptics’s investors’ demand for profits and the community’s need for substantive free development of Tcl. Veering too far in either direction will preclude contributions from the other: investment and connections or contributions and support. The tension between Ousterhout and Stallman is representative of the conflicting economies and social realities the free software communities face. While investors and capitalists struggle to understand just how free software has become so successful and how they can somehow profit from it, hackers and developers are trying to maintain the integrity of free and open source computing in the face of new attention and interest. Mainstream media interest in open source was piqued by the success of companies that serve and support the free software communities. The growing user base is spending a lot of money on support, commercially supported versions of free software products, and documentation.

Commercial Linux vendors are making significant revenues; C2net’s commercial, strong encryption version of Apache will earn the small company some US $15 million dollars in revenue this year; O’Reilly Publishing will earn over US $30 million on documentation of free software this year. These figures are, of course, dwarfed by the figures that proprietary software companies earn. (these figures 12 years later seem so small!)

Bill Gates, the emblematic persona of commercial software, has a personal fortune that exceeds the combined wealth of the entire bottom forty percent of the United States population; and Microsoft, the synecdoche of success in the software business, is the second wealthiest company in the world behind the mammoth General Electric. As large as Microsoft looms, it would be a mistake to credit them with spurring the development of free software. Free software has it’s own trajectory and its own history; both predate Microsoft. Free software isn’t a creature of necessity, it’s a child of abundance-that is, of the free flow of ideas the academy and in hacker communities, amongst an elite of developers and a fringe of hobbyists and enthusiasts. These communities lie outside the bonds of business as usual and official policy. The fact that this abundance has reached a significant enough mass to support business models has much less to do with presence of clay-footed proprietary monsters than with the superior and more engaging model that free software offers users and developers. Microsoft is, as Eric Raymond says, merely the most successful example of the closed, proprietary model of software development.

But it is the model in general, not Microsoft in particular, that open source and free software offer an alternative to. This alternative is not as profitable; it makes better software. Enough people have begun to recognize this to present a threat to proprietary software wherever the two models compete. For now, it’s hard to imagine anything that might threaten Microsoft, except for something outside of its model. Recently, a number of companies have embraced open source software in various ways and to varying degrees. Does this stem from a sense of abundance or is it an act of desperation? To those within the free software communities, the answer is obvious, the move to free software comes from an abundance. But, for many others, when a large commercial company decides to go open source (for example, Netscape) it’s often seen as a desperate act to shore up marketshare or mindshare while frosting widgets. The rising stars of the free software communities-Cygnus, Red Hat Software, and so on-had the community before they developed a business model. It’s much harder for a company to start with a business model and try to create a community-in no small part because the sense of abundance that marks free software communities is often alien to company logic.

Free software as both a specter and a possibility, nonetheless, has forced companies to consider alternative business models. For example, IBM’s bundling of the Apache webserver allows them to earn revenue from supporting the free product on their systems, not from creating a closed product. IBM, of course, did not open the source code for any of its own proprietary products. It sought to leverage the community and the brand name of Apache, but it will, true to the model, contribute substantively to the open source.

Some of the most visible internet companies rely entirely on free software for their infrastructure and their software stack; a good example is Yahoo. Often, these companies use and even develop open source technologies; but, they stop positioning themselves as technology enterprises per se. Richard Stallman pointed out quite a few years ago that the effects of free and open source computing are more social and educational than merely technological. I believe he meant that free and open source computing shifts emphasis from technology for technology’s sake and focuses it on what the possibilities that computing and networking open up, the development of community and the education of people.

Free software projects develop devoted communities that are explicitly extra-monetary and extra-institutional. Once-obscure theories about a gift economy, first set forth in Essai sur le Don (1920) by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, have become more than merely popular metaphors: they now form some of the basic tenets of the free software movement. The extra-market and extra-institutional communities of free software are novel social forms whose nearest analogy are the “phratries” that Mauss describes: phratries are deep bonds developed with those outside of one’s own family or clan; strangers become brothers through gift exchange.. A process that was fundamental to the theory of the gift economy and that is especially apt as an analogy for free software and the nets today is the potlatch, a term that describes the gift-giving ceremonies of the Northwest Coast Tribes of North America. The potlatch is a “system for the exchange of gifts,” a “festival,” and a very conspicuous form of public consumption. The potlatch is also the place of “being satiated”: one feels rich enough to give up hoarding, to give away. A potlatch cannot take place without the sense that one is overrich. It does not emerge from an economics of scarcity. Marshall Sahlins’s Stone Age Economics of 1972 is, more than a study of gift economics, a critique of the economics of scarcity. Scarcity is the “judgement decreed by our economy” and the “axiom of our economics.” Sahlins’s and others’ research has revealed that “subsistence” became a problem for humanity only with the rise of underprivileged classes within the developed markets of industrial and “postindustrial” cultures.

Poverty, is as Sahlins says, an invention of civilization, of urban development. The sentence to a “life of hard labor” is an artifact of industrialism. The mere “subsistence scrabblers” of the past had–hour for hour, calorie for calorie–more “leisure” time that we can imagine: time for ceremony, time for play, time to communicate freely. Sahlins’s presentation of “the original affluent society” should not be confused with the “long boom” recently popularized by Wired and other organizations, the specious celebration of some kind of information or network economy that will miraculously save us from scarcity and failure. His ethnographic descriptions of communal and environmental surplus and public consumption of surplus through gift-giving are a rebuke of the failures of “progress” to deliver the goods, not a description of some information-age marvel.

The gift-giving amongst an elite of programmers is an example of how collaborative and distributed projects can create wonderful results and forge strong ties within a networked economy; it certainly isn’t an adequate representation of the successes of the information age as a whole. It is an ideal; given its recent achievements, however, it seems reasonable to ask what further developments free software communities might achieve. And, in asking that, we might ask where the limits of open source logic presently lie. At the developers’ conference I opened with, Stallman pointed out an important limitation: we lack good open source documentation projects for free software. This is crucial, because free software develops rapidly: it needs timely and well crafted documentation. Tim O’Reilly already copylefted a book on Linux, but didn’t sell well. Perhaps it is time he tried again. The market is much bigger than it was even a few years ago. But, as O’Reilly points out, writers don’t want to copyleft their books as much developers want to participate in free software projects.

The authors of these books and of traditional books, for the most part, are individuals and do not work collaboratively with networked groups of writers to produce a text. Perhaps some may be inspired, as many indeed are, to experiment, as O’Reilly said he may be willing to. “Let him experiment!,” Stallman intoned after the conference. The phenomenon of free software is probably bigger than anyone of us realizes. We can’t really measure it because all the ways of tracking these kind of phenomena are economic, and the “small footprint” operating systems, Linux and FreeBSD, are flowing through much more numerous and difficult to track lines, lines through which move people just like the ones the who built them. There are a few hints. In August, cdrom.com broke the record for the largest FTP download of software for a single day, surpassing the previous record which had been set by Microsoft for one of its Windows releases. All of cdrom.com’s software is free and open source. Cdrom.com reports that much of the download is to points outside of the United States and the E.U.–to areas where, industry wisdom tells us, intellectual property laws aren’t respected.

What happens when soi-disant “pirates” become users who avidly, even desperately, want to learn, to receive, and even to give? What will be the social and economic effects of free and open source computing? Do the successful collaborative free software projects prefigure other kinds of collaborative projects? Will the hau, the gift spirit of free software spread into other areas of social and intellectual life? I hope so. There is a connection between the explosion in the use of networked computing and the recent rise to prominence of free software. And this connection may foretell new forms of community and free collaboration on scales previously unimagined, but it certainly won’t happen by itself. It will take the concerted efforts of many individual wills and the questioning of many assumptions about the success and quality of the collaborative, the open, and the freely given.

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