Open Source Mea Culpa or Backpedaling? You Decide

Last week I wrote about “Ten electronics things to be thankful for in 2010.” If you’re reading this now, you probably don’t need the link because you probably read that article then, too. But that’s not really relevant. What is relevant is that in #6, about open source hardware, I wrote, in part, that in some ways open source seems a bit exploitative of the designers.

In the comments, “pt” asked if I could give an example of how open source is exploitative.

I got to thinking about my choice of words and came to the conclusion that “exploitative” doesn’t quite cover what I was trying to say. Although, in some cases, I think it does. It’s possible that there are some aspects of the open source movement that I just don’t get. Or it’s possible that I have the capacity to pick a black cloud out of anything. If that’s the case, I like to think that I can also pick a silver lining out of anything as well. That combination becomes a problem with recursion.

I’m a capitalist so I believe that (a) it’s important to have profit as an ultimate goal of any commercial endeavor. I still have a bit of idealism left so I also believe that (b) when making that profit, we should be like the Boy Scouts and leave the planet a little better off than we found it. I get sick to my stomach when I read about executives making massive millions of dollars when their employees struggle to adequately feed and clothe their kids. (Is this post turning into one of those “I believe …” manifestos?) Following up that last point, I believe that (c) if someone does good work, they should get something in return for it. It’s a trade. You give me something valuable and I’ll give you something valuable in return. Not always money, but something of value.

That’s where the mushiness comes in for me. Here’s the good side. Ti is a big company that, with the Beagleboard, is giving something of great value to the electronics design community. As far as I know, the people at TI working on the project are paid. My guess is that the ultimate motivation of TI is it to help sell chips, but the project has given a whole lot of people access to a level of performance whom would not have had access it otherwise. That endeavor meets my abc conditions. Companies like Adafruit, Sparkfun and DIYdrones have built successful small (and growing) businesses with the help of open source hardware and software. People are making a living (I assume) from those organizations. Both companies give a lot back to the community and both companies make it very clear that they benefit from and really appreciate the efforts of open source designers. They give the folks recognition and support. They and companies like them meet my abc.

The other side of open source, and where I smell the exploitation, is when big companies use open source, make large profits and don’t return anything. I mean, sure, the license allows them to and I suppose that by reducing their costs, they can be more competitive and stay in business, keeping their employees employed. But when a software company buys the remains of another company or two that allegedly “own” some open source code and then tries to make a business of suing people that use that open source software; I consider that to pretty exploitative of all of the people that voluntarily gave their time to the project.

When a large muti-national company that sells server farms uses an open source OS and doesn’t return anything to the designers, I find that also to be exploitative. I don’t know what the answer is. I mean it’s cool that Linux, for example, is used in so many places. The fact that big corporations put so much weight on it certainly validates the legitimacy of it. But I can’t help but envision open source developers out there, that could really use a bit more money in the bank, looking at those big corporations that are profiting off of their backs, feeling a little used.

So, am I missing something? Do I not get it?

By the way, this piece has a lot of personal opinion in it, but I do believe that my company works hard to meets my abc so I don’t have a problem posting this on my work blog. The two times in my career that I did work for companies not meeting my abc, both ended badly for me. Fortunately, I believe in this one.

So, help me out here. If I’m not getting a part of this, feel free to chime in.

Duane “Does idealism hold up in the face of reality?” Benson

3 thoughts on “Open Source Mea Culpa or Backpedaling? You Decide

  1. Pingback: Open Source Mea Culpa or Backpedaling? You Decide at Circuits … | Open Hacking

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  3. I think A and C in your list .. are basically the same thing (effort or risk for something in return)
    And leaving the world a bit better? (B) .. agreed.

    As to smelling exploitation (?)…. I think you ARE missing something…

    Those large companies that use Linux?….

    If you research the subject a bit.. ~70% of all new Linux code… is done by people being paid by those large companies … (Red hat, IBM, etc…)
    It has been this way for years.

    The not quite the accurate vision…. hundreds ( thousands?) of unpaid engineers/hobbyist giving tirelessly/freely to the world…
    yea.. there are some that have the time and inclination… but they are a small part of the whole.
    I expect this group of contributors to become a smaller and smaller percentage of the total as Linux becomes more and more successful.

    Linux started as one man’s hobby.. it hasn’t been one for a long time.

    Should be noted: 98% of all the world’s “super computers” run on Linux…
    One of the reasons: the freedom to add/ change without the legal entanglements.
    Legal issues (ownership of IP) can often.. slow down advancement of science.
    In simpler terms.. Money doesn’t always help.

    Most subjects of discussion today.. are rarely simple.
    Keeps things “interesting”.

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