The Right to be a Charitable Community (II)

Posted by tuxchick on Nov 9, 2005 6:27 AM
Lxer.com; By Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris

As a Linux community member, I have the right to do charitable work centered around giving my time away for the cause of Free Software...The GPL guarantees that our gifts will have the longevity they deserve.

As a Linux community member, I have the right to do charitable work centered around giving my time away for the cause of Free Software.

Warning:
This article compares some religious (Christian-specific) concepts to aspects of the Free Software community. I intend no offense to people of other faiths- I only use Christianity here because it runs in my family and I have the most experience with it. Other religious doctrines, I'm sure, occupy similar value propositions in our society.

From time to time in the press I see attitudes that paint the business of Free Software as some sort of socialist movement. At the other end of the spectrum we find Microsoft seeming to wrap itself in the flag of capitalism, as if their huge stockpile of cash is itself an indicator of their true success.

These are currents in the subconscious thought of the technological business market. This article strives to bring figments of these underlying stresses to the surface. What you really find at the core of the discussion are some hard questions:

  • Am I allowed to make something and give it away without the threat of someone exploiting my work?
  • Is a community allowed to be charitable without having their charity abused?
  • Can a group of people get together and create intellectual property that can be shared with anyone in the future?
I'll answer these questions with more questions:
  • Is there precedent in society?
  • Are there similar things to the Free Software movement that already exist as a social dynamic?

The Concept of Community

Communities exist around shared needs and the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They demonstrate that people can share and in doing so, bring value to both sides of a social transaction. Communities define the foundation of society.

War, in stark contrast, is the direct opposite of community. War is about breaking down the lines of control. In war, you have direct opposites of community interaction; people destroying, as opposed to building. People taking, as opposed to sharing. People killing, as opposed to providing a nurturing environment where the population can safely grow.

Communities and Corporations

These are two different concepts that exist independent of one another. Corporations exist with clear charters of purpose and somewhat definitive lines of control, property and profit. Communities exist to define a social order of support for some cause. These concepts rarely intersect (RedHat, IBM and Novell easily come to mind as exceptions to this rule). Corporate interest does not have to align with community interest. In fact, Corporate interest in some case may run contrary to community needs.

Microsoft's view of the community is rather clear: It exists to create software that can be used to "innovate" (Microsoft style). For example, the TCP/IP stack in Windows came from the BSD community. The have come out in public and stated that they support Free Software -- as long as it's released under the BSD license, which allows them to take what they want, and do anything with it.

In other words, Microsoft has been pretty clear about where the act of "giving" stands in relationship to all of this. When Microsoft embraces the BSD-style license and attacks the GPL they are in effect saying: "We don't mind people being charitable, as long as we can take whatever it is and make it ours and charge for it".

A great example of this kind of mentality is the Kerberos protocol. Microsoft took the software, added proprietary extensions and grafted it into their product line. There it was used to lock people into buying their solutions. Where did the Kerberos code come from? It was released under the BSD license, which permits a company like Microsoft to embrace, extend and charge. No wonder they love this license -- they can charge the developer community for the work they created.

Contrasting this praise for the BSD license, they've been vocal about the GPL as well. They don't like it. In other words, they want a bizarre version of charity. We give, they take, and then they charge us for the work we've done. This is an attitude that doesn't just run contrary to the philosophy of the Free Software movement -- in my opinion it also runs contrary to the values that built our society.

The Ministry of Free

I don't make these points lightly, or without experience. My father, a man I'm extremely proud of, is a minister. He is no Bill Gates. He doesn't have billions in the bank. Richard Ferris is a man who devoted practically his entire life to serving a community; his congregation. He somehow managed to save enough money to pay, among other familiy related expenses, the college tuition of several children in the process.

I'm very proud of the work my father and his congregations have done. I'm also proud to say that he is not one whit like Bill Gates. He's done more for people from his heart. He's given more of himself. Bill can give as many dollars of Monopoly money away, but like the Biblical reference to the woman who gave out of her need, instead of plenty -- I believe that my father gave more. (Christians: See the Gospel of Mark 12:41-44)

His church was quite active before he retired, and he's still active in several Christian communities. My Father is going to do something unheard of to shareholders. He's going to give more of his time away. Gee, Microsoft, how un-capitalistic.

Long before any open-source business model ever existed, my Father was making a living in our society as a minister. It wasn't some pie in the sky dot-com venture, it was a time-tested, well-respected place in our community. Regardless of one's position on faith, one cannot deny that his church produced valuable, tangible benefits for society, many of which resulted from the free contributions of others. Yet the "business model" of the situation wasn't in question.

From this perspective the internal politics of Free Software versus Open Source seem kind of petty. The community is, in my humble opinion, a good portion of what we're all about. There seems to be something involved that money simply can't buy. Creating software that's worthwhile is often its own reward. Helping people and demanding nothing in return is one of the finest of human qualities.

The Internet: A Global Community

The Internet expands the extent of sharing to a global scope. Nothing quite like this has ever happened in human history. Never in the known history of man have we had the ability to affect so many people, so quickly, and in such a positive way.

Few in the current corporate landscape want to acknowledge this particular aspect of Free Software. It's likely because they're accountable to shareholders and they need valid revenue streams to ensure the livelyhood of their business model. Talking about charity in this context is counterproductive and not necessarily something that shareholders would care about.

Corporate greed and accountability to shareholdeers blinds typical businessmen from this fundamental truth about Free Software. Open Source companies must exist independent of the fundamental good that they are helping to foster. This is thanks to the social dynamics of being a publicly traded company in this world at this time. Complicating these matters, I suspect that some Free / Open Source Software (F/OSS) community members look away because they're focused upon either the agenda of Freedom or the idea that communities breed better software development models.

Yet the facts remain. By enforcing in your software license the freedom to modify and redistribute code, you create the freedom for a true Internet-based global community to exist.

The Corporate Community

Corporate involvment in the F/OSS movement is alive and growing today. Communities have remained despite the tests that the dot-com bust and other forces have pressed upon them since their emergence. The lines of membership have blurred somewhat at times, but we're still here and growing, despite numerous doubts as to our potential staying power.

A new approach to software based upon cooperation has emerged. People are even investing in companies based upon their attraction to communities. Whether or not you think the GPL was responsible for this revolution, the hard fact remains; The GPL started the trend and it still exists today. The Internet is based largely upon Free Software. The community that created this software is here and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Some people are simply wired with the ability to give. They give for a plethora of reasons, even if some are not all that altruistic. Some of it is artistic pride. A lot of it is about feeling good about what you do. I can speak from experience that some giving is simply mutually beneficial. In the long run, if you're still around after a few years, doing the same things, it's got to be about more than just cash, ego and control.

People working on F/OSS will never see monopoly profits and from my experience talking to them, they sincerely don't care. My father doesn't care that he's not a billionaire for similar reasons. He's a pretty satisfied guy. I can tell you that from watching video clips of Bill, he simply doesn't seem anywhere near as happy as Dad.

My Dad has a life, outside of the church. He's a grandfather. He's retired and gauging from all the stuff he's doing, his life hasn't changed much. He does what he does because it makes him feel complete. From what I've seen of the typical people involved in Free Software, the software they're contributing is often a side project. They have other interests and they're doing what they do with Free Software because they enjoy it.

When I look deeply into the situation, I suspect that my Dad loved his work because of the people in his community. Imagine spending hours talking to people with marital problems or helping people when thier house burns down and they lose every worldly posession they've got. Tech support people whine about getting paged in the middle of the night. Imagine getting called down to the hospital to be with some people while Grandma dies. Or worse, a child.

What's the bill for a call like that? Guess what? Nothing -- it's called being a Pastor. Yes, Pastors get paid, and the Bible does say that a worker is worth his wages. But the pay wasn't all that glamorous, and it wasn't the motivating factor. It's obvious, especially now, that my father didn't do it for the cash.

The Happy Medium

I'm doing all of this comparing because it's my firm belief that the whole Free Software thing is still mostly about the community -- people interacting and giving to each other and not expecting much in return. True, we all want to make a nice living and we're finding ways. The monopoly profits won't be there, but the feelings will remain.

I believe my father would have a problem with a corporation charging people for time he basically gave away. I think he'd have an even harder time if they were charging him for his own time. Literally, that's the way Microsoft views the world when they ebrace the BSD license and shun the GPL.

Contextually this is a very sad argument for a company so rich in cash. They want to use figures and examples to protect their position in the marketplace. They do, after all, have shareholders to be accountable to.

Does society exist to serve shareholder interest? Do the Free Software communities exist to serve Microsoft's shareholder interest?

The answer is an obvious "no".

Just like my Father's church was not accountable to shareholders, just like it didn't matter if their operation was a good "value proposition", just like it didn't matter much to my Dad's congregation that their contributions had a "flat growth curve".

The dollars simply obviously were not the focus for the people in the Free Software community. Dollars may matter to a venture like Red Hat -- but it's a corporation and that's what corporations are for.

The point is that there are things on this planet that should be done by community effort for the right effect. What makes a business in the proprietary software world thrive may hurt the target customer base in the long run. Infrastructure (web servers, operating system platforms and the like) make for vulnerable points of exploitation by a monopoly. I don't need to make examples here: Microsoft does a such great job of illustrating this problem for me.

People often praise the success that Microsoft has enjoyed. Usually, they are only looking at market share and cash at the time. If their continued success makes it difficult or impossible to choose anything but Microsoft desktop or server, then hasn't their "success" come at too high a cost to businesses and our society as a whole? Their corporate bad citizenship is world-reknown.

This is ultimately why those of us involved in the F/OSS world are not now, nor will we ever be a part of something like Microsoft. The community is creating a new world on the fringes of the old one. At times the borders are blurry, but today businesses based upon open standards, backed by GPL'd code, have emerged.

Years ago, Bill Gates made the statement at the end of his book, The Road Ahead, that he wanted Microsoft to survive the next paradigm shift. Well, it's here Bill. It's called "Free Software developed by community effort" -- what are you going to do? From what I see so far, Microsoft is looking the other way, hoping the paradigm shift won't run them down.

Part of their blind, war-like strategy has been centered upon attacking the soundness of the community portions of the Free Software equation. They often hint that the charitable aspects of community are bad for America. Is it? Given their current business model, it's likely bad for Microsoft. It effectively prevents monopolistic tactics. It decentralizes Microsoft's control over software development.

If Microsoft wants to make a case that the GPL is Un-American, Microsoft is attacking the very idea behind community service. Microsoft is saying it is against people that want to give but don't want to be exploited.

Imagine my Dad unionizing with a bunch of other Pastors and making church attendance mandatory. Imagine some sort of stupid lobby in congress or in the state of Massachusetts to make tithing a law. It sounds insane, but effectively, Microsoft has made this a strategy over the past few years.

Sharing The Freedom

Face it, without a lot of community infrastructure, most societies would collapse. By the way, I'm not suggesting that companies can't have huge profits -- I'm saying that they shouldn't complain about community service eating into them. They definitely should sit up and take notice of the communities that already make society what it is. Not everything worth doing is done for the cash.

Our current Internet information infrastructure was bred into place using the Free Software model. I shudder to think of the abuse our society might have suffered had a monopolistic entity succeeded in gaining control over it. From a community perspective, one of collective cooperation, information infrastructure has evolved exactly the way that it should.

Our internet infrastructure would have been far more profitable as a monopolistic venture -- but given the contrasting cost, likely would never have happened. The cost to society would have been alarmingly higher. Our society benefits from the fact that there are people and corporations that are willing to give time to make it work better than any singular effort.

Think about it next time you hear Ballmer or Gates bashing Free Software in public. I'm not saying that they don't have a place in our society. I'm saying it's sad and wrong for them to attack us because we're part of a charitable community.

It's a question that they don't want asked or answered honestly. Why are we doing this? Why is software being written and donated rather than being leveraged for corporate shareholders? Why do people go out of their way to volunteer so much when it could be a proprietary business venture?

Why?

Why are people doing this?

And the answers to these questions highlight the core of the threat that Microsoft's sees in the Linux community.

Whether or not you wish to argue about Freedom to code versus the cost of the software, what a lot of us are worried about is something even more intrinsic to the problem. We're worried about keeping the time that was spent at the front of the creation equation. We should be able to donate that time and not have it used against us later. We should be able to be a part of a community, and that simply means giving some things away. The GPL guarantees that our gifts will have the longevity they deserve.

The "Why?" question is a simple question with complex answers. Ultimately I believe it's a question of humanity and community. I think by now if you've given your time to a cause you believe in (religious or otherwise) you already have some understanding of the answers.


Thanks to my father for making this article possible in more than one way. I've had many conversations with him about Free Software. He uses GNU/Linux now and says he likes the dependability of the software and the fact that it's secure. It was he, not I, that instantly saw the parallel between Free Software communities and his work.

The original version of this article can be found on varlinux.org here


Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris is a Linux professional and community member. He has been using Unix and Linux for a combined total of over 16 years. His articles have graced LXer.com, Linux Journal, LinuxToday, LinuxPlanet, NewsForge and various other Linux news and technical information sites. His recent expertise with enterprise-class implementations of Linux have lead to the creation of the the batchlogin project, his first large-scale Free Software project. A husband, father and more, yet his technical passion is Linux and has remained so for the past 12 years.

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