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

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 …


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  1. Lars Silver badge

    Well said

    And true I think.

    1. alwarming
      Thumb Up


      & Linus torvalds just put a torch in GNU where the sunlight don't shine.

      I kinda like this new Torwalds more than the old one. Or, maybe I really didn't know the old one - just clubbed him with the rest of the GNU gang.

  2. LaeMing
    Thumb Up

    Agree very muchly

    There are a plenthora of rational reasons, more than enough that there is no need to pull some "moral card".

  3. Zonkerman

    Defending Google

    Matt - How can you defend Google? They contribute almost nothing to OSS, they made sure GPLv3 did not require them to give back any contributions to the community and their "open" Andorid platform isn't. Instead, they market openness and deliver fragmentation.

    Are you saying that as long as they use linux they are good open source guys? That's worse than foolish.

    1. Steven Knox


      and make sure you comprehend it before posting next time, please.

      (Here's a hint: the ENTIRE POINT of the article is that the quantity and quality of, and rationale for, OSS contribution is an individual, amoral*, decision. So claiming that Google is somehow right or wrong for their OSS contributions or lack thereof is, in the context of the article, akin to claiming that purple is 5.)

      * That's amoral in the literal, correct meaning of the term, not "immoral".

  4. SoaG


    The socialist-leaning majority of open sourcers don't want to hear that their little experiment bears striking resemblance to Rand's theories in action.

    1. Ed Deckard

      You mean the one

      where government is bad and poor people are stupid so we should give all our money to a cult?

    2. Peter Murphy

      You're quite wrong, SoaG.

      Ayn Rand thought selfishness a virtue. There appeared to be no room in her philosophy for the enlightened altruism associated with open source. Instead, she seemed to be enamored with psychopaths with no empathy for other people.

      One of Rand's heros was William Edward Hickman - a 20's criminal famous for the kidnapping, torture, murder and dismemberment of a 12 year old girl by the name of Marian Parker. He did other stuff as well - armed robbery and other murders - but the death of Marian Parker was the most shocking crime of all. No wonder he went to the gallows. What was Rand's reaction to this, you may wonder?

      "In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted."

      I have no idea what Rand would have made of Linus Torvalds; I suspect it would be uncomplimentary. She would have blasted all the people who use Linux as "parasites", no doubt.

      1. MacroRodent Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        required reading

        That link you included to Michael Prescott's page is most enlightening. I used to think Ayn Rand's ideas had some validity, but got over it. And that text shows she was actually a much darker character than I thought. People blasted by Ayn Rand or her disciples should take it as a compliment...

    3. Aaron Em

      uh sure

      Y'all have the damndest definition of "objective" I have ever seen.

    4. PatrickEB


      The socialist-leaning majority KNOW that the socialism inherent in FOSS is alive and well.

      I'd say you need to find out what socialism means before you use it in a statement.

      1. Stevie


        The objective is the widest end of a telescope.

        Next question.

        1. R Callan


          It's the narrowest end of a microscope.

    5. Richard IV

      Telemachus Sneezed

      Why is it that Ayn bloody Rand is so often mentioned on Tech forums? It must be some variant on Godwin's Law that insists that stories which indicate all is not perfect in "socialist utopias" will eventually get a comment like SoaG's.

      This isn't to say that there aren't utopians in the mix, which was part of the point of the article, or that it's actually socialist - socialism != people cooperating for whatever reason*, and "whatever reason" was another part.

      A closer parallel can probably be found in Proudhon's collectivist anarchy rather than Rand's Objectivism, but then overweening individualism tends to only accept that one viewpoint (theirs) is possible and sees every situation as vindication.

      *on those grounds any political party whatsoever is socialist, as are charities, and companies, and armies

    6. Saigua

      Rand Corporation, Ayn Rand, Paul Rand or Ingersoll-Rand?

      Because fluid power is something I can

      Giving and the art of being where your customers go to solve problems are pretty well advanced past the nonetheless decent diversity in Andrew Carnegie's^W^WHideyoshi Toyotomi's lifetime. Ayn Rand cracked some decent literary criticism out when, as illustrated, your logic had previously lived by its straw men rather than critical merit. Retconning aside, (behold the exuberant bowing of Colossus Berlusconi? ... Sarah Palin the Indemnified?) if you never hit a wrong note, you must have played well (you roll chaotic, you work possibly long odds. Then drums in a metal band. Roll lawful and you call ahead to ask what time a city's curfew starts before dining out.)

  5. Gannon (J.) Dick

    Logical Obligation

    Entertainment makes money too.

    If an Open Source contributor works for a Corporation that claims ownership of the work product of her every waking moment, there is a moral obligation to end the peonage. Forget the urge to 'give back'.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Whole article is an Aunt Sally based on your own misperceptions.

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

    Except that no he doesn't, not for one second, you are just putting words into his mouth. In the quote you provide, he says it is ungrateful of Amazon not to contribute; that means he thinks it would be grateful of them if they did. Also, he says it is unwise of Amazon not to contribute, that means that he thinks it would be wise if they did.

    However, what he does not for one second say is that it was immoral of them not to contribute. He does not mention, raise, or imply issues of morality in either the quote you selected or the entire post you linked to.

    You entirely confabulated that angle, based on your own ideological spin on what he was trying to say. The whole thing only happened in your own head, derived from an outward projection of your own personal issues onto your interpretation of the whole world. ("Right thing to do" does not even necessarily imply morally right, there are many other ways in which something can be right, from the pragmatic to the short-term advantage to the tactical or strategical, none of which need to be morality-related, and in any case, saying that Google did the right thing would still not imply that Amazon must therefore have done the wrong thing unless you engage in some kind of fallacy of the excluded middle.)

    So the entire article is a strawman argument, and indeed you even provide plenty of quotes that make it perfectly clear that the open source movement is well aware that there are many reasons to contribute to open source, ranging all the way across the scale from pure self-interest to outward-going other-directed selflessness. Everything you said is already well-known to be the case, and already long-since acknowledged so by all the people involved; only in your imagination was it ever any different. So what are you *actually* trying to say in your content-devoid article? I think you're just having an emotional rant at a bunch of people you find ideologically disagreeable.

    1. lurker


      There's a strong tendency to view the Open Source community as some kind of cultish communist splinter group, and this article seems to start with the central premise that this is the case, indeed the 'Linux Hippies' in the title makes it pretty clear that the author subscribes to this stereotype.

      As Linus' quote makes clear, it's a lot more complicated than that. The driving force behind open source development is that it is a more LOGICAL approach to systems design; peer review and iterative development simply outperform and out-adapt secretive monolithic approaches to software design. The Cathedral vs the Bazaar.

      There may be moral benefits to open source also; RDS would certainly argue that there were. However the original MIT hacker culture which spawned him and which helped to shape the FOSS environment owes more to curiosity and a desire to optimise code than it does to 'socialism'.

      As you say, the article is based on the ludicrous and patently false supposition that the driving force behind open source sofware is morality. He's confusing pragmatist open source, described so well by Linus, with moral 'Free as in Freedom' free software, as promoted by the FSF. A common mistake, but one which you would not expect someone with such an impressive CV to make.

      1. bhtooefr

        Except, some of the worst open source software I've dealt with...

        ...has been developed under a bazaar model.

        You can have open source under a cathedral model, and in fact, Linux uses such a model. Linus gets the ultimate say over what goes into Linux and what doesn't, ergo, it's cathedral.

        The best software tends to be managed pretty strongly by one person or one committee to avoid bloat, and push things in a certain direction, rather than a bunch of devs contributing code that they think would be cool in the program.

        1. lurker


          Not really. The bazaar model refers to software which is developed openly on the internet in view of the public.

          In fact, the very terms Cathedral and Bazaar come from the book published by ESR, in which he specifically names Linus as the inventor of the Bazaar model, and linux as the prime example of it.

          So, until you take the argument up with the person who coined the phrase, I'd say you were just plain wrong.

      2. Anonymous Coward


        " indeed the 'Linux Hippies' in the title makes it pretty clear that the author subscribes to this stereotype."

        Although TBF while the content of the article is the author's, the title/head/subhead may well have been chosen by an editor/subeditor/moderator/whatever the hell the correct term online is.

    2. sabroni Silver badge

      an emotional rant at a bunch of people you find ideologically disagreeable.

      Kettle? Meet Mr. Pot....

    3. ubiquitous1980

      I do not think Matt Asay likes "Free Software".

      Matt Asay avoids the term "Free Software" very diligently in this article. For those who do not know, there is a marked difference between "Free Software" and "Open Source Software". Open Source Software is not, strictly speaking, an ideology. Rather, it is a software development methodology which focuses on the benefits of development speed obtained through making access and contribution to software where the source-code is available. The concept is that open source through "many eyes" will have less bugs -- E. Raymond.

      In contrast, while using the same developmental approach, "Free Software" is not a software development methodology. Rather, it is a social movement which focuses on the rights of software users, ensuring that they receive the "Four Freedoms" as shown on

      Now that is out of the way, let me get something else straight, and it will not simply go away. The term Linux "hippies" is not only a misnomer, but it also fails to mention the considerable effort that the community (yes that's right: "community") went to, to ensure that Linux had a userland and that GNU had a kernel. You will find that the GNU project was helped along by a group of hippies and I do not use that term in any derogatory sense. Rather, I use it in the sense that these people put ideology, something that is seemingly elusive in today's society, ahead of simple technological superiority.

      I support the freedom for people to contribute what they want/can, when they want/can. Analogously, I will argue to the bitter end to allow someone to speak whose opinion differs with my own. By the way, if contribution, strongly encouraged, by extension to 'copyleft' software is not beneficial to both parties, then I do not understand why FreeBSD, which while being free software is mostly not copyleft, lags behind the developmental speed of GNU/Linux. I also do not see how that lag can possibly benefit anyone who uses FreeBSD.

      In the end, I look forward to a society that recognises the benefits of being both "open source" and able to obtain software freedom. I also respect the notion that developers may choose not to partake in such activities because of the potential detriment to their personal finances. But please, do not expect us GNU/Linux hippies to "Wake up" and believe that your way of thinking is the only way. It seems, and I cannot be sure, that the author does not believe in ethical realism.

  7. ptmmac

    Common Sense

    This article is just common sense. You can complain about the budget all you want but no one is going to pay taxes unless they are forced to do so. No company is going to contribute to open source unless it is in their best interest to do so, or they are forced to do so by some legal obligation. Attempting to shame companies or individuals into producing code is just plain silly.

    1. Martin Owens


      I like paying taxes... so long as I get to vote.

      But we're not all excusing ourselves of our social obligations and responsibilities with half-clever moral myths about self-interest.

  8. PatrickEB

    It's hard to know where to start

    Matt Asay lacks a notion of 'self-interest' that is coherent or developed.

    The same simplistic and basic arguments that are really circular argument.

    "People contribute because it makes them feel good - thus it's self-interest."

    The argument is absurd and regularly shot down philosophically.

    It is really a claim that there is a simplistic relationship between feeling good about contributing to something, feeling good that others can use it, feeling obliged to do something to help others, to contribute for others.

    Linus is good at what he does, but he's not a philosopher and his grasp of social relationships is not strong. Furthermore, other people did the work that kept and keeps the larger companies from crushing him and defeating his work and the work of others.

    No, this is not paranoia, merely that many things are banned in various places for no reason other than they threaten already existing monopolies or powerful groups - growing hemp for instance.

    I think the EFF would have a few things to say about ensuring FOSS remains so.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      >"Linus is good at what he does, but [ ... ] his grasp of social relationships is not strong."

      So, you've seen his mailing list posts too then?

  9. PatrickEB

    The 'Ideologies' argument presented here is outmoded and inaccurate

    They are presented as an either/or proposition when this is not accurate.

    They are complex ways of thinking about and representing the world and there is no way of avoiding them...they're merely ways of patterning relationships and of determining whether something should or should not be accepted.

    Each individual creates them and lives by them and can generally be placed within them.

    I really like the following quote, said to be by Linus himself:

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

    I'm assuming he has a lot of self-loathing!

    It's obviously contradictory and expresses a lack of knowledge of the subject.

    BTW I appreciate all the work Linus T has put in to the very kernel I use everyday.

    1. Daniel 4

      Reading too much into it

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

      -Linus Torvalds

      "It's obviously contradictory and expresses a lack of knowledge of the subject."


      Actually, in context, it has only one contradiction, which is quite clearly a technicality. It is a quote specifically about software development ideologies, NOT about life ideologies. Within that context, there is no reason why someone can't happily work with people following all sorts of differing "ideologies." Yes, technically stating that you despise /any/ ideology means that you are exclusionary to some degree, but the true fact of the matter is a philosophy of "I'll deal with your motivations if you'll deal with mine and everyone else on the team" is about as open as you can possibly get, and it is pretty obvious that this is what Linus was trying to get across here. Whether by accident or with deliberation, trying to turn this into anything greater than that isn't intelligent or wise, it's missing the point.


  10. Steven Roper

    I beg to differ

    There is a moral obligation attached to using open source, and it's exactly the same obligation requiring us to pay for the work of artists and programmers that we commonly know as copyright law. For open source, it's called copyleft - the idea that if you can use the work I contribute for free, then the work you contribute must be free as well.

    My reasoning here is this: If I spend days working on a code module for an OSS project, and I get no renumeration for doing so - I do because I enjoy the work, not to make money - then why should you be able to take my work and profit from it without giving your work back? I contributed. If you use my work in your own, so should you. Otherwise you can damn well pay me for it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @I beg to differ

      "There is a moral obligation attached to using open source, and it's exactly the same obligation requiring us to pay for the work of artists and programmers.....

      Why? You openly made a choice to give your work away free, no where is it written down that anyone that uses it must pay either cash or in kind. Artist CHOOSE if they want to give their music away (e.g. a street busker) in the hope that someone may pay for it, but no on is compelled to pay for it. If you decide you want to get PAID everytime, then there is this thing called a job. Many large users of OSS PAY people to programme the code. Therefore they are hardly using it for free.

      "If I spend days working on a code module for an OSS project, and I get no renumeration for doing so - I do because I enjoy the work, not to make money - then why should you be able to take my work and profit from it without giving your work back?"

      So in theory, you could claim that you spent 3 days working on a project, so therefore you are entiled to a share of Googles / Amazon et al profits, despite not spending billions of dollars on hardware, staff, infrastructure, etc etc.

      This is the difference between a hobby and a career

      1. Anonymous Coward

        AC @ 08:16

        "Why? You openly made a choice to give your work away free, no where is it written down that anyone that uses it must pay either cash or in kind. "

        A basic, all too common, misunderstanding - they don't GIVE it away for free, they MAKE IT AVAILABLE for free.

        Which is why several companies (and numerous more) have had to employ the services of Hunt, Lunt & Cunningham to represent them in court against the developers.

      2. Saigua

        No. Doubly.

        >large users of OSS PAY people to programme the code. Therefore they are hardly using it for free.

        They are unless they throw down for a household licensing fee on top of the use fee.

        Additionally, in a career rather than a trade, you take risks and are not assured of a payoff; buy, hold, encourage, repeat. Sometimes the board are split on your ideas and you go hold a bit. You can pretend to be a dirty stinky pirate hooker hippie if you need to abstain from the encouragements that discourage you. See also: _Dreams with Sharp Teeth_.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      Re: Steven Roper

      > There is a moral obligation attached to using open source

      Since you are the senior IT manager in your company, which no doubt makes use of open source to some extent, perhaps you could enlighten us as to how you are fulfilling your moral obligation?

      Or perhaps this moral obligation only applies to others.

    3. Displacement Activity
      Paris Hilton

      @Steven Roper

      > then why should you be able to take my work and profit from it without giving your work back?

      > I contributed. If you use my work in your own, so should you. Otherwise you can damn well

      > pay me for it.

      Why would I want to do that? I could just write it myself and do it properly.

      I have occasionally released code into the public domain (the only "free" licence). I do this for complex reasons which I'm happy with. I am imposing no obligations, moral or otherwise, on anyone who wants to use it.

      You should stop imposing your world view on the rest of us. We're not interested.

      1. Martin Owens


        Seriously: I'm happy you've made your work public domain (it's not a license, but what ever) but you shouldn't try and promote your ideology of unaccountable anarchy to other software developers who are simply not interested in your world view.

        Especially since it has known flaws.

    4. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
      Paris Hilton


      I'm with Stephen on this one, if I were to create anything from open source I would have no problem sharing it with anyone, but I can't see why anyone should then profit from my work by selling on my work.

      If I tried to sell something google created, google would call me a pirate and call in the parasites, eh, lawyers.

      @snivelling miserable coward 08:16; you seem confused about what the street musician is doing, they are not giving away their music, they are performing their music, they still retain ownership of that music and anyone who tries to profit from that music should pay the street musician a loyalty. So yes, if google are profiting (making hard cash) from Stephen's work then google should redistribute that wealth back to Stephen by either 1) hard cash to Stephen or 2) giving back to OSS.

      Paris, because she has published her work on the internet for everyone to enjoy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Down

        Re Field Marshal whatever

        Read the bloody comment. Stephen does not mention selling on the work, he says there is a moral obligation attached to just using the work. That is a world of difference.

        The GPL protects you from others selling on your work for a profit. It also allows anybody and their dog to use the work for whatever purpose they desire, and if they happen to make a profit from its use then that is not against the terms of the GPL.

        1. Steven Roper

          Wow, what a thread

          Ok, last AC: I'm not sure what you mean by "merely using the work imposes a moral obligation" so I'll clarify my standpoint. Consider an open source project, such as Celestia, which I've downloaded and use a lot. Doing so places no moral obligation on me or anyone else to contribute to the project, or pay anything for doing so. Although - in resonse to another poster who accuses me of double standards - I HAVE contributed to Celestia and a couple of other projects that caught my interest. So don't tell me that I don't when you have no idea what I do.

          Now suppose someone were to take the code for Celestia and turn it into a closed-source space game for which they charge say $60 and a $20 a month subscription, without releasing the source. Not only is that a violation of the GPL, it's morally execrable. It is THIS that I was having a go at, and I stand by what I said. If I contribute source to a project, and some company steals that source and uses it in a closed-source product, that is what I meant they can damn well pay me for. Not merely downloading and using the program, but reusing open source code in their own closed source projects.

          Sorry if I caused any misunderstanding of my view there, I hope this clarifies things. If you still disagree with me on my stance, however, then I am opposed to your way of thinking.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Steven Roper

            This is the first sentence of your original comment:

            "There is a moral obligation attached to using open source, and it's exactly the same obligation requiring us to pay for the work of artists and programmers that we commonly know as copyright law."

            Note the phrase "There is a moral obligation attached to using open source...".

            The article itself is about companies USING open source and making mega bucks without contributing, not about them ripping off code. It is therefore reasonable to interpret your words, both in the context in which they read and in the context of the article, as meaning you believe use of open source imposes a moral obligation.

            Ripping of code is another matter and is an illegal act in most countries so the morality of it is irrelevant.

    5. Daniel 4

      YOU are the one who controls the license!!!

      "My reasoning here is this: If I spend days working on a code module for an OSS project, and I get no renumeration for doing so - I do because I enjoy the work, not to make money - then why should you be able to take my work and profit from it without giving your work back? I contributed. If you use my work in your own, so should you. Otherwise you can damn well pay me for it."

      Won't. Can't make me.

      Don't like it? Then release it under a different license, which does obligate me to do so. Then I'll either decide to follow the license, or not use your software. (Because at that point, I /DO/ have an obligation, legal and moral, to do so.)

      That said, if you can't understand this, then I don't trust your logical reasoning sufficiently for me to want to use anything you've coded anyway.


  11. Bluepants

    Rational calculation of interests is not always enough to get the best results

    "The moment it's perceived self-interest is furthered by contributing rather than free-riding, Amazon will contribute." That's all very well and rational, except that free-riding can cause problems - in particular the under-production of public goods. Game theory nicely shows how rational agents can back themselves into corners by choosing strategies that appear to maximize their self-interest. Sometimes you need more than a perception of your own interests. Maybe talking about moral obligation can get a little tedious, but some kind of communal strategy can be necessary to overcome problems caused by narrow calculation of self-interest, as anyone who has ever investigated prisoners' dilemmas will tell you.

  12. David Hicks

    Morally? Who cares?

    Now contractually, that's different. Using GPL and similar copyleft licenses, companies are legally bound to give back any improvements or derivative works they distribute. This seems to me like a great arrangement - if companies want to sell FOSS stuff they can, but everybody gets rights to the source code of binaries they receive. Plus additions and improvements make their way back up the line, slowly, so the hobbyists and other geeks and freaks are happy.

    Whether the benefit gained by the firm is 'morally' equal to the amount they give back is irrelevant.

    Morality only ever seems to come into the conversation when you throw BSD zealots into the mix, because apparently giving things away with no restriction is a morally superior action. Also not using this right to clam up and give nothing back is supposed to be the moral thing to do. Witness the outrage when some wireless drivers were copied from BSD to Linux, improved and put under GPL....

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      What is the price of goodwill?

      For any company, being seen to be a "good guy" in the (often simplistic) public image is worth a lot,even if it cannot be expressed in money. Ethics and corporate responsibility are becoming more and more important in shaping that public image, if nothing else. This too may be seen as selfish, but it is not expressed either in terms of money or contractual obligations.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Pile of shit

      BSD, MIT and Apache licences take the politics out of open source. Any hoohah about GPLing BSD code is more about the hypocrisy of applying the GPL to something that is already open source. Inasmuch as commercial use is more or less encouraged you can argue that this is both inconsistent and sour grapes but it's really just a storm in a tea cup.

      For US corporations the BSD licence means they are more likely to contribute back, should they ever feel the need, as they don't need to get the lawyers involved and this really does lower the barrier to entry. See the work on Postgres or Juniper's contributions to BSD and why Trac changed its licence.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Pile of shit

        "For US corporations the BSD licence means they are more likely to contribute back, should they ever feel the need, as they don't need to get the lawyers involved and this really does lower the barrier to entry."

        I'd like to see the numbers on this. Certainly, Linux has seen a lot more US corporate action than the BSDs ever have, at least as far as we know, and maybe that's the point the commenter was making: the copyleft-licensed code has to see the light of day at some point; permissively-licensed code can bask in its binary glory if the corporations so wish.

        Contributing back to permissive projects is mostly a survival tactic: any small company or small group of developers can't hope to fork such projects and see their workload go down. On the other hand, Microsoft and pals have little incentive to contribute back.

        A final note on applying the GPL to BSD-licensed code: the hypocrisy is surely that of the people who license code permissively and then complain about seeing someone take advantage of the very privileges conferred on the recipient. Naturally, one can always say that the original BSD-licensed code is "still available if you want it" instead of the GPL-licensed derived work. Apparently this is acceptable when a company makes proprietary software from permissively-licensed code, but not when copyleft enters the equation: yet more hypocrisy in action.

        And so on.


      Morality is irrelevant given sufficient law.

      Morality is irrelevant given sufficient law. The Law exists specifically because you can't trust individuals to live together in peace with each other. SOME ONE will try to take advantage of everyone else. This is where governments and laws come in. They arbitrate conflicting individual interests.

      For lack of a better term, people are evil. This evil is mitigated by law, order and contracts.

      Free Software is nothing more than a framework to assure that everyone "plays nice" with one another. It imposes it's own "sufficient law" through contract and license law. A good license ensures that everyone plays by the ground rules that the original talent specify. If someone thinks that they can take advantage of everyone else, then the apparatus of the state can come into play.

      As far as "morality" goes. The same "morality" applies to all authors regardless of how they choose to license their work.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        "This is where governments and laws come in. They arbitrate conflicting individual interests."

        Laws, yes. But not governments. They just _are_ another bunch of interests.

  13. foo_bar_baz
    Thumb Up


    The author says Amazon won't contribute until it's in its interest. Reputation and good standing are major reasons why people and companies contribute to open source projects. Good natured prodding can use reputation as leverage and result in contributions. I don't see anything wrong with that, as long as it's not (as the author correctly points out) framed in some wonky ideology or done with a holier than thou attitude.

    It's true some open source advocates misunderstand. "Parasites" are part of the deal and are also good for open source. The quality and utility of the product is the only value in open source. If there are "parasites" that don't contribute code, documentation, bug reports, money or anything else back to the project, they are a proof of its quality and serve as an advertisement to the project and open source in general. It's win-win!

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: parasites

      There's no clear dividing line between parasites and symbionts. It depends on how you measure benefit. The average human being is a whole ecosystem that has evolved to tolerate its members, and even those that give nothing back are hogging a space that excludes something even more unpleasant, so are they parasites?

      Even FOSS users who "give nothing back" are giving back credibility. Credibility is important, because it attracts others who might be able to give rather more back. Look how much effort Microsoft have expended over the years trying to paint Linux as lacking credibility.

      Then there's FOSS users who "give very little back", such as the vast majority who contribute no code, but many of whom have answered a question on a support forum, or even just said "yes, that happens to me too" and unwittingly added an observation that led to a solution. The individual contribution goes below most analysts radar, but the collective benefit is undeniable. All of these helpers will have started as parasites, trawling those same forums for solutions to their own problems. Gradually, they have evolved into symbionts.

      1. foo_bar_baz
        Thumb Up

        @Ken Hagan

        That's exactly what I was trying to express, hence the use of quotation marks on the word.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Needs to be said, but...

    Good post, and when you and Glyn Moody agree about something it's worth noticing. Bt I have some difficulty with the suggestion that contributions by users of Free Software should be "commensurate with the benefits it receives." That. to my mind, is a tactic to peg Free Software to the money economy, which is unnecessary and too controlling, and quite probably the fact that the value of Free Software is expressed differently to /only/ economic value is the reason for Free Software's rise and rise.

    As a matter of interest, some years ago, when responsible for the implementation of a particular piece of GPLed software, as a contribution, we shelled out quite a few thousands on getting the software prepared for multi-lingual operation and for translation work. The company which produced the software promptly pulled the work we paid for into a new paid-for version, meaning our contribution supported, oh, one company, and made me forever aware of the iniquity of "open core" and other weaslly marketing gambits.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "Bt I have some difficulty with the suggestion that contributions by users of Free Software should be "commensurate with the benefits it receives.""

      You claim this is pegging it to a money economy, but to me it sounds like "to each according to his ability, from each according to his need."

      The thing about free open source is that it's ideologically neutral. It *isn't* socialist, nor "objectivist", nor capitalist. It's just a thing that is, though if I were to to say it was close to any ideology it would be libertarian. Somewhat. Maybe. It's a tool, like a gun or a hoe or electricity, that can be used by anyone regardless of their beliefs.

      The point is, you're projecting your ideology onto it, and that ideology is suspicious of the "money economy", so you would naturally see the above statement about contributions as confirming that suspicion. You *could* see the opposite, that it supports a socialist stance. Either way it's irrelevant, as it's your ideology projecting itself onto something that isn't inherently part of any ideology.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Were moral issues clear cut there would be no disagreement, but it is clear they are not, with more than one viewpoint being defendable. So some see the morality of at least trying to balance what they receive with what they give. Others see it perfectly moral to take but not give and consider the others suckers. I guess the world will go on with the mix of attitudes we have.

  16. TeeCee Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Too damned right!

    Who do you want your software updated by?

    Someone who reckons that they have something valid to add and is prepared to make time to implement it, or someone who feels grumblingly obliged to show willing and find a few minutes to chuck something into the mix?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Even companies are schitzophrenic on this issue

      I work for a very large multinational, and at some sites (like mine) we very willingly feed back fixes, and support for new hardware, into the open source, whereas at others nothing is allowed back out to the community.

      When we raise the OSS issue within the company technical hierarchy, we are just told that if the lawyers ever think that we have to release code from all sites, then we might have to think about it!

      One particular site in Edinburgh is very quickly onto the forums to report problems, very quick to grab community supplied fixes, but will not even allow their code to be viewed from sister sites!

      Personally I think that such abuses of the system are just wrong!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I worked at Amazon back in 2004 and back then they certainly made huge use of FOSS - and to my knowledge it was out-of-the-box. There may have been some modifications but nothing so obvious to me. All the Amazon smarts were in huge big closed source projects developed in house. Even kernel fixes were done totally in co-operation with Redhat's support team. I for one think that there is a moral obligation for users to contribute back in one way or another to the FOSS scene - but why should that come in the form of software patches?? Amazon has done a lot to benefit FOSS just by not paying MS and co loads of support monies and have been relatively platform agnostic with their offerings over the years,

  18. MMMM

    Poor/Damaging and narrow-minded analysis from an Open Source Advocate

    While most of your article has merit, the title undermines the very ethos of Open Source i.e. community. While perhaps no single individual should be morally obliged to "give back", society as a whole has a rather large interest in keeping Open Source thriving.

    Large portions of the internet and many a government infrastructure (including their legislatures and judiciaries) run on Open Source. Public code is the only proven way to ensure that the systems which play an ever-growing role in governing our lives remain open to inspection. The title of your article is a pathetic fop to private interests and a narrow interpretation of Mr. Torvald's comments.

    So Mr. Asay, rather than suggesting that you vote for the left, I simply suggest that you put a little more thought into your news-making headlines.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      What are you saying?

      1) Vote for the left

      2) ???

      3) Obtain community

      I have a bridge, slighty used, in Brooklyn.

      Seriously, there seems to be a some confusion between things that are "in the interest of society" and that are "non-private/leftist".

  19. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Corporate OSS: somebody, somewhere pays for it

    ... and if the corporation that's "giving back" has customers and/or shareholders, that's who will foot the bill.

    Leaving aside the loner hobbyist who hacks out code (but hardly ever documentation) in their own time and for their own reasons. They're different from industry-quality OSS contributions. However for corporately sponsored OSS there is a measurable cost: the developer costs money, the support costs money, the legal defence costs money, even the publicity and promotion costs money.

    Now, I appreciate that it's customary to regard large faceless organisations, financial institutions and governments, as "them" - as if they exist in a parallel universe and receive and disburse money in a way that's completely unrelated to us and our "real-lives". However, their revenues come from somewhere and for every £ they spend, they've got to earn (at least) another £ from customers or taxpayers or investors.

  20. idris

    Torvalds's quotation contradicts sensationalist tagline

    "Open source selflessness does not exist" vs "I think it's really refreshing to see people working on Linux because they believe they can make the world a better place".

    Open source selflessness clearly does exist, but as you suggest, it is unlikely that this is the main driving force behind FOSS.

  21. Displacement Activity

    @the "FOSS Community"

    Shut up. The rest of us don't give a damn. "Open Source" was here long before Stallman, the FSF, the GPL, and you lot. And it'll still be here when you're all gone. We're not interested in your moral agenda. We write *real* open-source code (you remember: the licence which doesn't use 600 words to re-define "free"), and we use it, and we're sick of your whining. Go away.

  22. copsewood

    mixed motives, sometimes unclear

    If you have an overwhelming research interest in something, curiousity is probably the driving factor initially. Then there is the sense of benefit of acquiring knowledge. Then, if like me you teach or for others who engage in funded research, that knowledge becomes a salary. But it's very easy for others to ascribe selfless motivation to what is self interested here. You don't sell knowledge by sitting on it but by sharing it and that goes for source code. You don't really understand why you do these things at the start of an academic career. Linus's work was initially done while studying for an academic degree and I'm convinced this contributed greatly to his success in getting a degree in 1997 and he wouldn't have received his honorary doctorate 2 years later otherwise.

    Similar work was done on Minix, Linus' initial development platform, in academia and for academic purposes. Linux wasn't developed on raw hardware. It couldn't have been developed on MSDOS. It was developed using Minix.

  23. Bugs R Us
    Thumb Up

    Humans always act on self interest

    Even the altruistic act on self interest. Only humans have egos.

    1. Francis Boyle

      Philosopy fail

      As was pointed out upthread

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Unfortunately Philosophy doesn't bring in the Bacon.

        And neither does it produce any usable source.

        Gb2 Tweed-Wearing Pipe Smokers' Club.

  24. The Beer Monster

    In the words of Bob Mills and Tony Hancock

    I didn't come here for a lecture on communism.

  25. Jonjonz

    Blah Blah, Woof Woof, Me

    Blah blah, woof woof, my company, blah blah, woof woof, me, blah blah, woof woof, nothing conseqential...

  26. Hardcastle the ancient

    No one 'morally obligated' to give back

    Should that not be 'Morally Obliged'?

    Any cleverclogs out there know if there is a name for this type of linguistic shift

    1. Big-nosed Pengie


      Yes. It's called "illiteracy",

  27. Hardcastle the ancient

    Doesn't matter

    When I give code away, I just give it away. That, in itself, is the subversion I am hoping to achieve. I would be very surprised if most users were able to contribute: if they had the skills & tools they would not need my code. I do, but the OSS act is the giving away, not an expectation of a quid pro quo.

    So what if someone builds it into a corner of a multi-million pound empire on it? I bet they had to do many thousands of much harder things to do that, the amount of effort I put into my code will be insignificant in that context.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Surely the point is that a gift cannot create an obligation,

    or it wouldn't be a gift? Somebody might choose to give something back or they might not, but there is no debt to repay even morally, and thinking that there is devalues the original gesture. As the article explained there are hard-headed commercial, personal and even political reasons for giving stuff away. Often there are hard-headed commercial, personal or political reasons for giving something back. But not always.

    1. Francis Boyle

      If you think open source is a gift

      you don't understand open source. Also your understanding of the logic of gift giving is a little shaky. I'm guessing you're not very popular at Christmas.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Francis Boyle

        It can't work both ways. Either FOSS is a "gift" in which case it is obligation free, or it is not a gift - in which case the obligations are spelt out quite comprehensively in the license. Compliance with the license means obligations are met.

        I think the previous poster understands "gift" far better than you do - although mutual gift giving is the socially accepted norm at Christmas it is expected that one does not give a gift solely on the expectation of receiving a gift in return, which is the point being made.



    No one has ever made an amoral decision. People and organizations definitely have a moral obligation to give back. If not in reciprocal work, by giving money to the FSF, OSI This guy is a moral dwarf, overwhelmed by greed and the craze for self aggrandizement that is engulfing our society. And by ENVY. He's sick with it. Work together. Produce for the common good of all. You don't do that, you're a moral leper. That's an invariant. True for all time.

    On the other hand, one shouldn't criticise the behaviour of others too much. Mankind needs help, from every creature born. But the moral obligation to give back remains.

  30. Uncle Siggy

    Speaking of ethics

    I am an OSS proponent. A recent addition to my team was speaking of how OSSers are ethical compared to Microsoft cretins. The youthful mind often seems to me to be incapable of comprehending amorality. "Yer either fer us, or agin us!"

  31. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Feel free not to give back...

    ...or to give away...

    ...but if you try to pass off my work as your own, I'll happily roast your nuts over an open fire.

    THAT'S what GPL is all about.

    FWIW $orkplace has contributed hard cash to a number of projects - but only because it's directly suited our interests to do so.

  32. Herbert Fruchtl

    A bit one-sided

    > Perhaps. I've made similar arguments in the past.

    My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I'm right (Ashleigh Brilliant). You're inviting a cheap shot (hereby delivered).

    > The moment it's perceived self-interest is furthered by contributing rather than

    > free-riding, Amazon will contribute. And not until then.

    The managers at Amazon know as much about the future as you, I, and your average astrologer. They make decisions based on company culture, prejudices, hunches, and untroubled by any technical knowledge. So Amazon doesn't contribute; Google does; pretty much any HW manufacturer does... Some companies do, some don't. Success and failure can be found on both sides of the fence (which isn't even a fence, but rather a broad continuum).

    I don't know _WHY_ FOSS is successful. In an economic system explicitly based on selfishness and competition, it shouldn't. And yet, since I entered IT more than 20 years ago, when it was a ridiculed idea espoused by a bunch of hippies, it has developed into a billion-dollar industry. The likes of IBM, SGI, Intel, Sun (OK, they went bust, but so did many others) keep investing money into it. Red Hat and Google have built empires on it. All of them following the capitalist maxim of increasing shareholder value and crushing the competition. I don't know why, but enough of those hard-nosed capitalists see an advantage in being part of it. Not to mention the army of volunteers who contribute for a bit of short-term professional recognition.

    1. Oninoshiko

      Let me tell you why it's successful


      If something ISN'T a part of my core business, but I still have to do it, it's useful for me to amortize those costs across many other companies who also have to spend them. Even if the other companies that I am working with are my competitors, I gain from them working with me as much as they gain from me working with them. we can both lower our costs, everybody wins.

  33. jeffmcneill

    Parasitism finds its rationale...

    Attacking the people without whom open source wouldn't exist, and claiming that their moral leadership is "their opinion" and therefore not valid, is hilarious. This is especially ironic for those who try to make a buck out of open source. Thick, this irony, and not very tasty.

  34. syntax_error


    Amazon is broke because of a bad Wind... Experience. Now they are reluctant to invest... Even in what they are trusting.

  35. llewton


    that canonical held this man on payroll for several months is really a horrible verdict on how serious a company canonical is.

  36. Anonymous Coward

    Epic Fail

    "The world would be a _much_ worse place if we didn't have companies doing things for money [ profit ]." - LT


    For someone like LT to come out with such nonsense shows that he may be a good programmer but he can't think very logically. The proof of the pudding is here:

    Just follow the arrows.

    Logically the profit motive is anti human. Anti transparency. Anti speedy development. Anti life. ( at this state of Capitalism )

    Heck..and to think this guy gave us Linux...

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      This is illiterate on so many levels...

      Why aren't you in a hippie commune with 100% organic everything tilling soil or something instead of writing drivel on evil capitalist devices?

  37. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    How can morals and obligation be put together?

    Your morals are part of your belief system. They are yours, nobody else's. If you think something it right you will try to do it, otherwise not. How does anyone else get to say what you should or should not think?

  38. rciafardone
    Thumb Up

    Mr. Tovals is right.

    Few people in the FLOS community is so level headed as Linus Torvals.


  39. peter collard

    Unfair to Amazon

    As someone who uses Perl with the HTML::Mason framework, I think you could reconsider your slating of Amazon. They provided the Mason project with a great deal of feedback and improvements - both to performance and more importantly stability.

    One of the biggest benefits a large user can have is to improve stability in a product. They tend to stretch the product to its limits and beyond. Perhaps this is where the open source community should give credit and encouragement.

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