PhilO

Interesting article on Open Source software

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Here's a perspective on Open Source software not often seen in today's sea of altruism:

Economy to Give Open-Source a Good Thumping

From the article:

[...]

Is $0.00 really the future of labor in an age of mass unemployment?

Of course not. One of the very few positive consequences of the current financial miasma will be a sharp cultural shift in our attitude toward the economic value of our labor. Mass unemployment and a deep economic recession comprise the most effective antidote to the utopian ideals of open-source radicals. The altruistic ideal of giving away one's labor for free appeared credible in the fat summer of the Web 2.0 boom when social-media startups hung from trees, Facebook was valued at $15 billion, and VCs queued up to fund revenue-less "businesses" like Twitter. But as we contemplate the world post-bailout, when economic reality once again bites, only Silicon Valley’s wealthiest technologists can even consider the luxury of donating their labor to the latest fashionable, online, open-source project.

In his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, MIT behavorial economist Dan Ariely suggests that most of us are irrational when it comes to determining the value of our labor. I’m not sure. I may not have Ariely’s grasp of behavorial economics, but I’m pretty sure, if not certain, that the idea of free labor will suddenly become profoundly unpalatable to someone faced with their house being repossessed or their kids going hungry. Being paid to work is intuitive to the human condition; it represents our most elemental sense of justice.

[...]

As a new iPhone developer myself, it's enlightening to read various harangues by the open source zealots against the iPhone's (and iPod Touch) App Store, where Apple is extremely successfully making itself, and many developers, wealthier a few dollars at a time. Some of the apps are free, and the zealots want all of them to be free.

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That's a refreshing commentary, thanks for sharing it. I wish it didn't take a bad economy to make people see that money is the root of all good.

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I think Open Source software is one of those phenomena that tends to get appropriated by altruists in an attempt to support their viewpoint (and/or that altruists try to promote Open Source as an example of their ethics.) Although it is possible for someone to be involved in OS based on altruist concerns, in my view, the essence of OS is not altruist at all--in fact, if it was, I seriously doubt it could ever possibly have had the impact it has had.

Open Source is an instance of mutually beneficial cooperative action. Who ever said that the only non-social benefit that must accrue to people must or should do so via profit-driven business activity? All kinds of desirable human values are mediated by not-for-profit associations, such as unions, sporting clubs, social clubs, and so on.

I recently spent 3 years working on a major upgrade to a piece of scientific software that is licensed in the Open Source model. It makes use of a large number of Open Source components, all of very high quality. In turn, we do not try to sell our software, but make it available to anyone interested, for scientific use. We have had other parties help make extensions, or help with the debugging etc. This is a perfectly equitable model. We at our lab get our software to use, get the major components at no cost, and those who use our software get a benefit, at no expense or cost to us. Linux provides a great value to those who use it, and many commercial companies such as IBM and Google have turned around and made sizable contributions to it. Even Apple bases a lot of its software on Open Source components, and gives back valuable new components such as WebKit (an Open Source web browser engine, that has, for example, been integrated into the Qt software development platform, itself a mixed-license package that can be used in Open Source mode for free, or licensed commercially for proprietary software.)

The features and evolutionary trajectory of Open Source packages is driven, for the most part, by the actual usage scenarios and needs of the users, not (alas, all too often) by the wonky marketing doobs in clueless big software firms. Microsoft has been a steady stream of one wonky fetish after another for the last 20 years, with stuff often driven by near-religious zealotry of top-down driven technical or marketing agendas, rather than good solid engineering and user needs. The Open Source community has provided a much needed and welcome alternative to their nuttiness.

Those who are opposed to commercial software, like uber-software-communist Richard Stallman, are like those who claim that defending your country is self-sacrificial and altruistic--they really miss the actual selfish benefit of Open Source.

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Those who are opposed to commercial software, like uber-software-communist Richard Stallman, are like those who claim that defending your country is self-sacrificial and altruistic--they really miss the actual selfish benefit of Open Source

For a much more sensible approach to licensing than Stallman's anarchic GPL (Gnu Public License, which basically works similarly to a computer virus to try to turn everything that ever touches anything licensed under it into freeware), check out Creative Commons (CC). You can use various combinations of their pre-fab licensing arrangments to set up strict copyright protection or to place things in the public domain, and pretty much anything in between. I use CC for everything I make available to anyone. And not just software: for example, my blog content is copyrighted and subject to a CC BY-BC-ND (Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works) license, with commercial use terms negotiable.*

_____

* Not that anyone's shown any interest yet, but I'm still new. Nothing wrong with thinking ahead and thinking big. :blink:

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:: dons my "I <3 Open Source" hat ::

No, really, I do. I'm writing this on my laptop in AbiWord, using Fedora Core 9 x86_64. I've got a zillion tabs open in Firefox. On another workspace, I have Sun VirtualBox running to use the Windows-only software I need on a day-to-day basis. I have X-Chat and Pidgin running through an encrypted proxy (also free and open-source) and Banshee to listen to music.

For a lot of people, it's really not all about the money. I agree that free will not fill anyone's belly (and neither will "the community" unless you're a zombie ...), but there are a number of other ways to make money off of free - some legit, some pretty nasty. I think the author and many of those he writes about is forgetting one of the most memorable Heinlein-novel quotes: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

For me, it isn't much about the free-as-in-speech or beer or whatever that means. Free is definitely a nice price tag for a college student. More than that, I love being able to modify it however I want and easily gain knowledge of anything and everything going on in my computer. (Although I can do a good bit of that in Windows as well.) But free has a price.

As an example, I'll go back to me using Fedora 9. Fedora is a solidly-engineered operating system. It's the test-bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a for-pay distribution owned by the sponsor of Fedora. Every few releases of Fedora, Red Hat takes to develop its next operating system from. They get the benefit of Linus' Law ("Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow") and users get the benefit of using an operating system that would take the coordinated effort of skilled professionals in order to program. There is no formal customer support - there's a bunch of IRC channels and a forum online, but in the end, I'm on my own when I have trouble.

I see ads related to my email in Google Mail when I use a web browser to access it. I don't use social networking sites, but they make money off selling god-level accounts to advertisers. YouTube also makes money off of ads (but is probably losing a great deal more from constant takedown notices). When the freely submitted content isn't bringing in the quantity of users to support itself, it too will die. Wikipedia is a nonprofit and runs off of donations, but enough people care about it now to keep them online. When that changes, it'll be like every other nonprofit and disappear.

On the other side of free is malware. I remember endlessly telling people to remove certain file sharing programs for their privacy when I worked as a PC technician. Now I'm seeing fake anti-virus programs from time to time. I hate to say it, but their dastardly tactics do make money (at least for a little while).

One of the fringe benefits of recreationally-programmed (or open-source or no-corporate-office) software is the ability to evade the law (whether the laws and intentions are good or bad is another point entirely). To evade censorship or tracking, you can use the TOR network or any number of other solutions. To avoid bankruptcy via lawsuit, have no one that can be sued. How many people or companies can pay off a lawsuit? Not having an office solves that problem. Consider Real Networks' RealDVD program. It's really nice about the whole copy-protection thing. It makes an encrypted copy of a DVD movie on a hard drive, protected by a license key to the RealDVD software (think iTunes-style copy protection). Within a week, there's a lawsuit and counter-suit, injunction to stop distributing the program, etc.

I wouldn't have purchased RealDVD or similar copy-protection programs anyways. Those of us with the inclination have been making decrypted copies of our own DVDs for years for free - not to mention modifying it to make it play on portable music players and teaching other people how to do the same.

That doesn't even mention the just-for-fun people who contribute in more ways than can be listed. This is where I fall in. I like to tinker and learn along the curiousity-control-conscious intent cycle. I don't have any plans to do anything worthy of payment, but if I help someone out along the way, that's nice. In the end, I'm using a snappy desktop that does everything I need and want it to do reliably; but that doesn't change reality - "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

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I think Open Source software is one of those phenomena that tends to get appropriated by altruists in an attempt to support their viewpoint (and/or that altruists try to promote Open Source as an example of their ethics.) Although it is possible for someone to be involved in OS based on altruist concerns, in my view, the essence of OS is not altruist at all--in fact, if it was, I seriously doubt it could ever possibly have had the impact it has had.

Open Source is an instance of mutually beneficial cooperative action. Who ever said that the only non-social benefit that must accrue to people must or should do so via profit-driven business activity? All kinds of desirable human values are mediated by not-for-profit associations, such as unions, sporting clubs, social clubs, and so on.

I agree with you that open source software is something that altruists wrongly use as an example of how their ethics could work, but I think the fact that open source is a "phenomena" at all is evidence of bad ideas creeping in. If more people were focused on the right of a programmer to own his intellectual property by setting the terms by which other people may use it, the programmer's decision to release the code publically would not be elevated to the importance it is given today. Instead, it would be just one of the many possible terms that he or she could set, like price, the length of the license, etc. In other words, it would be a non-issue except for the parties involved in trading that intellectual property.

Just as an example, without getting into specifics: I've been employed as a programmer for 7-8 years now, and there have been many different terms placed on my work. Sometimes I'd work for a client paying a little to no money, and sometimes I'd work for a client paying lots of money. Sometimes there are specific deadlines placed on my work, and sometimes it's left open. Sometimes a client wants a copy of the source to modify as they see fit, and sometimes they just want the final application. It's all dependent on the needs of the parties involved and what the two sides agree upon.

Open-source is an instance of mutually-benficial cooperative action, but so is closed-source -- and for the same reasons. So why is this one term elevated to such importance? Personally, I think it's for bad reasons. Some people think that software *must* be free -- not just in cost, but also without restrictions placed by the creator. And since they can't get people to fall in line immediately, they start to sneak them in. In this case, by trying to convince people that it's in their best interests to give their intellectual property away instead of setting their own terms (no matter how loose those terms are).

Those who are opposed to commercial software, like uber-software-communist Richard Stallman, are like those who claim that defending your country is self-sacrificial and altruistic--they really miss the actual selfish benefit of Open Source.

I think that Stallman doesn't get the selfish aspect of open-source software in the same way that Al Gore doesn't get the selfish aspect of cleaning up your trash: They just don't care. They're not on mankind's side.

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I agree with you that open source software is something that altruists wrongly use as an example of how their ethics could work, but I think the fact that open source is a "phenomena" at all is evidence of bad ideas creeping in. If more people were focused on the right of a programmer to own his intellectual property by setting the terms by which other people may use it, the programmer's decision to release the code publically would not be elevated to the importance it is given today. Instead, it would be just one of the many possible terms that he or she could set, like price, the length of the license, etc. In other words, it would be a non-issue except for the parties involved in trading that intellectual property.

When I was starting out at Sprint PCS in 2001, one of the mid-level programmers, a Forbes-reading Chinese emigre, said to me, after we'd been discussing open-source with a senior J2EE architect who was a big open-source fan: "What many people don't know is that open-source is communism." If I recall correctly, we were having lunch at a Korean restaurant.

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As long as we're on an XKCD roll, here's a great summary of the argument I made in my IP Law class.

steal_this_comic.png

I think I may need to note that I do actually buy my content (music, movies, games, etc.) Really, it's just a point of meaningless distinction as long as all consumers are criminals in one way or another.

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I think I may need to note that I do actually buy my content (music, movies, games, etc.) Really, it's just a point of meaningless distinction as long as all consumers are criminals in one way or another.

I think a lot of pro-piracy people use problems with the DRM as another rationalization for their illegal behavior, and I think your cartoon is an example of that. It set up two false alternatives -- either you pirate or you pay and lose your music collection later -- and then equates both with criminality when that's not really what will happen.

It says that you'll be a criminal either way, but there is another way: Don't break the law. If you don't pirate music you won't break the law, and if you don't violate the agreement you made with your internet music provider when you purchased their product you'll be ok, too (regardless of what the DMCA states).

The only question with DRM is whether to accept it or not -- and I agree that people shouldn't mess with it. DRM'd music is an enormous technical and legal headache. It's much easier to either purchase from an online store that doesn't sell DRM'd music (like Amazon.com or eMusic, my two favorites) or to purchase the CD and rip your own legal copy. And if you go those two routes, you'll be ok no matter how you want to use your collection. But no matter how people feel about DRM, piracy is NOT an alternative and they shouldn't include it in the discussion.

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It's much easier to either purchase from an online store that doesn't sell DRM'd music (like Amazon.com or eMusic, my two favorites) or to purchase the CD and rip your own legal copy. And if you go those two routes, you'll be ok no matter how you want to use your collection. But no matter how people feel about DRM, piracy is NOT an alternative and they shouldn't include it in the discussion.

Yup, I purchase CDs still and just rip them with iTunes, I don't want to mess with DRM. What I do is legal and it allows me to keep and play my music forever. There's no dilemma here.

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