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<nettime> The Need to Give: Free Software and the Nets
ed phillips on Tue, 29 Sep 1998 17:02:32 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> The Need to Give: Free Software and the Nets



A few weeks ago, O'Reilly Publishing sponsored an Open Source Developer Day.
The conference took place in downtown San Jose, emerald city as ghost town, in
a hotel that only even partially fills up for conventions and conferences. 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, of Cathedral and Bazaar fame, was the keynote
speaker.  He focused most of his talk on the "enterprise market" and Linux's
penetration of it. Linux, the phenomenon, has made recent notice in the
straight economic press, in The Economist and Forbes, and so have several other
of the free software projects. After querying the audience to see who they
were, and after discovering that the majority of the folks in attendance were
hackers, Raymond delivered an entertaining tour through some of the more recent
and significant achievements of Linux.  Raymond's entire talk focused,
nonetheless, only on the enterance of Linux as a serious player in the
corporate enterprise server and high end computing markets.  Linux's
penetration of the highest ends of the computing world is an interesting story
and it is one that at least can be measured somewhat.  But the Linux phenomenon
is much larger and includes a worldwide spread into PCs and even recycled
486's.  The 486 market, for example, is of no financial significance in Silicon
Valley at the moment but may prove to be of social and economic signficance
globally.

There was little discussion by any of the participants of the larger social
impact of free software based computing and networking. The rest of the day was
spent discussing business models and the legal technics of licensing. A day of
presentations and note taking on this or that approach was punctuated by
Richard Stallman's declaration that John Ousterhout was a "parasite" on the
free software movement. Ousterhout was up on the business models panel,
describing his company, Scriptics's, 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.
Stallman walked up to an open microphone during the question period and said
that it was interesting to see the behemoth of IBM, a representative for which
was on the panel, sincerely entering in to the free software community by
supporting the Apache project while John was planning on making the fruits of
the community into closed and in Stallman's view, harmful, proprietary
products.

Some people clapped while Stallman injected a little controversy into the
affair. Others jeered. If Stallman hadn't goaded Ousterhout and, later,
O'Reilly the "conference" may have ended as more a press conference than as a
town meeting for the free software community. Some of the more official
attendees were said to be embarassed by Stallman and he may not be asked back
again.  Most of the assembled seemed baffled and confused 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 dismissed by the trade
press because of Stallman's behavior.

A week later a VP from a software company thinking about going open source
talked to me after he got a full report from someone they sent to the
conference. "Stallman is a Communist", he said.  "Stallman is no Communist" I
said, laughing, thinking to myself that political economy was no where near any
topic of conversation I heard all day. The closest Stallman ever got to talking
about politics was to mention the  U.S.  Bill of Rights. "He's not even a
Marxist,"  I interjected.  The software community is not known for a highly
articulated or nuanced view of political economics.  Those in the proprietary
software world and many of the open source vendors are good proper businessmen
and are not quite sure how to address a question that is not about either
technical capacity or profits.  Many did not even seem comfortable with the
possibility that dissension and debate might be a good thing.

Stallman's very presence makes some in the free software communties
uncomfortable.  He's like an old cousin that shows up at the wrong time, is a
little too loud and says things that other people think but that no one else
will come out and say. Foremost amongst the traits that make the denizens of
Silicon Valley uncomfortable is Stallman's contempt for the merely commercial.
Stallman is, indeed, full of contempt for the merely commercial, for profit for
profits sake, especially when that profit comes at the expense of the the free
circulation of ideas and software. That contempt for profit for profit's sake
is whatcontemporary executives, hip though they may be, find so consternating
and odd.  Expressing that kind of contempt in Silicon Valley is a little like
going to Las Vegas and declaring contempt for gambling. But Stallman's antics
make perfect sense within the context of free software and within the 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 is known
as, though not by RMS, the "viral" license.  A "viral license" is one that
legally binds the user to keep any modifications in the open source code free
and open to further modification.  The GPL has been very good, as they say, to
Linux, as an example.  The GNU project spent a considerable amount of time and
money crafting a very clear and legally binding document that has served as a
haven for many a free software developer.  Linus Torvalds was spared the need,
as many have been, to craft a license and set a precedent that would allow for
the open and distributed development of his open source project.

Stallman's GNU project has done incalcuable good for free software. No one in
the free software communities denies that.  His insistance on no compromise can
make many of them shift in their seats, however. He doesn't make the "suits"
comfortable either. And he doesn't want to.  Stallman doesn't carry a business
card; he carries a "pleasure card," as he calls it, a card with his name on it
and what appears to be a truncated personals ad, "sharing good books, good
food...tender embraces...unusual sense of humor." The guy is clearly not
looking for a job or a business deal. Friends perhaps or "community", but
clearly not a business deal. But he's not against others making a profit from
free software; he, in fact, encourages those that manage to make profitable
businesses while contributing substantively to free software and free
documentation for free software.  He, like every other "hacker" in assembly at
Open Source Developer Day that I managed to talk to, is a thoroughly 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 make
compromises with those who would like to combine open source with closed and
proprietary software. And his reasons are pragmatic; he reasons that if an open
source project is canibalized or "parasitized" by the development of closed
products it will be a detriment to 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 that he might be able to support the open source
development of Tcl while he develops proprietary tools on top of it.  He,
acknowledges that there will be some tension from the need for Scriptics to
offer a return on investor capital and from the need for the community to have
substantial evidence of support for the further free development of Tcl.  Many
future contributions could be lost if open source developers think that their
efforts will only serve the closed products of Scriptics and not the community
of Tcl users.  Scriptics could lose funding, on the other hand, if investors
think that everything will "just be given away."

Where's the business model?  The source of the recent interest in the
mainstream press has been the monetary success of companies that serve and
support the free software communities.  The large and growing user communities
are spending quite a bit of money on support and commercially supported
versions of free software products as well as documentation.  The commercial
Linux vendors are making significant revenues; C2net's commercial, strong
encryption version of Apache will make the small company some $15 million
dollars in revenue this year; O'Reilly will make over $30 million dollars in
revenue on documentation of free software this year.  Although the revenue
figures are signficant for free software and peripheral businesses, they are,
of course, dwarfed by the revenue figures for proprietary software.  The
synecdoche, of course again, for proprietary software is Microsoft or Bill
Gates.  Gates, whose personal fortune exceeds the combined wealth of the entire
bottom forty percent of the United States population, and whose corporation is
the second wealthiest in the world behind the mammoth General Electric,
represents the greatest monetary success ever achieved by any software
enterprise.

As large as Microsoft looms, it would be a mistake to credit them with spurring
or even inspiring the development of free software. Free software has it's own
trajectory and its own history that both predates Microsoft and lies outside of
Microsoft's ken.  Free software is a child of abundance, of the free flow of
ideas in the academy and in hacker communities, amongst an elite of developers
and a fringe of hobbyists and enthusiasts.  The communities of free software
are fertile "phraities" that lie outside the normal bonds of business as usual
and official policy.  The fact that the abundance of free flowing ideas has
reached a significant enough mass to support business models has less to do
with presence of a clay footed proprietary monster such as Microsoft and more
to do with the superior and more engaging model that free software offers users
and developers.

Microsoft is, as Eric Raymond says, merely the most successful and largest
example of the closed or proprietary model of software development.  It is the
model and not Microsoft in particular that open source and free software offer
an alternative to.  The free software model doesn't make near as much money; it
makes better software. Enough people realize the superiority of free software
to make it a threat to proprietary software in every niche it enters into. It's
hard to think of anything that might threaten Microsoft, but the giant computer
companies are like so many Romes who in their moments of greatest success
already show signs of terminal decay.  Perhaps Linux will threaten Microsoft's
notoriously buggy cash cow NT as Eric Raymond predicts.  Many apparent NT boxes
out on the networks are already Linux boxes that simulate NT by using Samba.
It is hard to tell, and in many ways it is beside the point.

Does the move to open source come from over-fullness, from a sense of
abundance, or from desperation, from ressentiment?  From within the communities
of free software, the answer is obvious, the move to free software comes from
an abundance.  When a large, already commercial company decides to go open
source, think Netscape, it is often seen as an act of desperation.  The rising
stars of the free software communities, the Cygnus's and the Red Hat Softwares
had the community before the business model. It's much harder for a company to
start with the business model and try to create a community.  IBM did not open
the source code for one of their products; they decided they wanted to leverage
the community and the brand name of Apache.  Netscape's competing web server
has been put to rout by the superior market share of Apache as has everyone
else.

One of free software's most significant contributions, in fact, has to be the
way that it has made companies look for other business models besides
proprietary software.  Some of the most successful internet companies, in
market capitalization at least, rely entirely on free software to serve their
content.  Yahoo is one prominent example of a Free BSD enterprise.  The success
of of Yahoo may hearten executives who are contemplating using free software to
do their networking, but for the users of free software and for the developers
of free software the process and the products are the motivation

Free software projects develop devoted communities that are extra-monetary. The
metaphors of a gift economy are appropriate and useful here.  After Marcel
Mauss's  Essai Sur le Don of 1920, after his series of readings on
extra-monetary exchange and readings in ethnography and historiography, words,
metaphors, and analyses of gift economies have spread into vocabularies. More
recently, internetworked exchange of ideas and software has given fresh license
to the use of the terms for gift economy. One of the terms for gift exchange
that has had the most currency is the potlatch, the 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 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, in addition to 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 other's research has revealed that "subsistence" was never the central
problem for humanity, except for underpriveleged classes within the developed
market and now industrial and even post industrial 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 more leisure time, time for ceremony,
for play, and were afforded a greater nonchalance than the vast majority of the
populations of our era.

But Sahlins's critique of the economics of scarcity needs to be distinguished
from the "long boom," the specious celebrations of some kind of information or
network economy that miraculously will save us from scarcity and failure.  The
ethnographic descriptions of communal consumption of surplus in ritual
splendour are more a rebuke of the failures of progress to really deliver the
goods than they are the description of something that is coming into being in
the information age.  In a similar way the gift-giving amongst an elite of
programmers is more a model of how collaborative and distributed projects can
both create wonderful results and forge strong ties within a networked economy
than some representation of the successes of the information age as a whole.

What further developments can the free software projects achieve?  A possiblity
and a barrier was pointed out by Stallman at the Open Source conference.  We
lack good open source or free documentation projects for free software.  Free
documentation of high quality for free software is extremely important because
free software develops rapidly and it needs timely and well crafted
documentation. Tim O'Reilly has said that he already tried to copyleft a book
on Linux but that it failed to sell.  Perhaps it is time he tried a free
documentation experiment again.  The market is much bigger than it was even a
couple of years ago.  O'Reilly points out that writers don't want to copyleft
their books as much developers want to participate in free software projects.

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
Free BSD, are passing along the much more numerous and impossible to track
lines of those Eric Raymond called the "broke," those just like the people who
built them. There are a few hints though. In August, cdrom.com broke the record
for the largest ftp download of software for a single day, surpassing the
previous record which was set by Microsoft for one of its Windows releases. All
of cdrom.com's software is free and open source.  Cdrom.com also reports that
much of the download is to points outside of the United States and the EU.

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  or the spirit of the gift 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
prove to foster 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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