Foundation,for instance,notes that you can arrange for all or part of
your gift to the United Way to go to the Foundation.
But there are differences,too.Stallman,for instance,is proud of the
fact that he accepts no salary or travel reimbursement from the Free
Software Foundation.He works 2 months a year to support himself and
then donates the other 10 months a year to raising money to support
other programmers to work on Foundation projects.
Their budgets are pretty manageable as well.Perens notes that Debian’s
budget is about $10,000 a year,and this is spent largely on distributing the
software.Servers that support plenty of traffic cost a fair amount of money,
but the group does get donations of hardware and bandwidth.The group
also presses a large number of CD-ROMs with the software.
The groups also make a point of insisting that good code is more
valuable than money.The Free Software Foundation,for instance,lists
projects that need work next to its call for money.Volunteers are needed
to write documentation, , test software, , organize the office, , and also
write more code.
Jordan Hubbard, , the director of the FreeBSD project, , says that
money is not always the best gift.“I’ll take people over six-digit sums of
donations almost any day,” he says, and explains that FreeBSD is
encouraging companies to donate some of the spare time of its employ-
ees.He suggests that companies assign a worker to the FreeBSD project
for a month or two if there is time to spare.
“Employees also give us a window into what that company’s needs
are.All of those co-opted employees bring back the needs of their job-
site.Those are really valuable working relationships,”he continues.
Hubbard has also found that money is often not the best motivator.
Hardware,it turns out,often works well at extracting work out of pro-
grammers.He likes to ship a programmer one of the newest peripherals
like a DVD drive or a joystick and ask him to write a driver for the
technology in exchange.“It’s so much more cost-effective to buy some-
one a $500 piece of hardware,which in turn motivates him to donate
thousands of dollars worth of work,something we probably couldn’t pay
for anyway,”he says.
Money is still important,however,to take care of all the jobs that
can’t be accomplished by piquing someone’s curiosity.“The area we
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need the most contributions for are infrastructure.Secretarial things are
no fun to do and you don’t want to make volunteers do it,”he says.
All of these charitable organizations are bound to grow in the next sev-
eral years as the free software movement becomes more sophisticated.In
some cases it will be because the hackers who loved playing with comput-
ers will discover that the tax system is just another pile of code filled with
bugs looking to be hacked.In most cases,though,I think it will be because
large companies with their sophisticated tax attorneys will become inter-
ested.I would not be surprised if a future version of this book includes a
very cynical treatment of the tax habits of some open source organizations.
Once an idea reaches a critical mass,it is impossible to shield it from the
forces of minor and major corruption.
Marcel Mauss was an anthropologist who studied the tribes of the
northwestern corner of North America.His book Gift
explained how the tribes like the
Chinook,the Tlinget,and the Kwakiutl would spend the months of the
fall giving and going to huge feasts.Each year,the members in the tribe
would take the bounty of the harvest and throw a feast for their friends.
The folks who attended might have a good time,but they were then
obligated to give a feast of equal or greater value next year.
Many anthropologists of the free software world like to draw parallels
between these feasts,known as potlatches in one tribe,and the free-for-all
world of free source software.The hackers are giving away source code in
much the same way that the tribe members gave away salmon or deer meat.
The comparison does offer some insight into life in the free software
community.Some conventions like LinuxExpo and the hundreds of
install-fests are sort of like parties.One company at a LinuxExpo was
serving beer in its booth to attract attention.Of course,Netscape cele-
brated its decision to launch the Mozilla project with a big party.They
then threw another one at the project’s first birthday.
But the giving goes beyond the parties and the conferences.Giving
great software packages creates social standing in much the same way
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that giving a lavish feast will establish you as a major member of the
tribe.There is a sort of pecking order,and the coders of great systems
like Perl or Linux are near the top.The folks at the top of the pyramid
often have better luck calling on other programmers for help,making it
possible for them to get their jobs done a little better.Many managers
justify letting their employees contribute to the free software commu-
nity because they build up a social network that they can tap to finish
their official jobs.
But there’s a difference between tribal potlatch and free software.
The potlatch feasts built very strong individual bonds between people
in the same tribe who knew each other and worked together.The gifts
flowed between people who were part of each other’s small community.
The free source world,on the other hand,is a big free-for-all in both
senses of the phrase.The code circulates for everyone to grab,and only
those who need it dig in.There’s no great connection between program-
mer and user.People grab software and take it without really knowing to
whom they owe any debt.I only know a few of the big names who wrote
the code running the Linux box on my desk,and I know that there are
thousands of people who also contributed.It would be impossible for me
to pay back any of these people because it’s hard to keep them straight.
This vast mass of contributors often negates the value and prestige
that comes from writing neat code.Since no one can keep track of it all,
people tend to treat all requests from unknown people equally.The free
source world tends to have many equals,just because there’s no hierar-
chy to make it easy for us to suss out each other’s place.Corporations
have titles like executive vice president and super executive vice presi-
dent.The military labels people as private,sergeant,or major.There are
no guideposts in the free software world.
Still,good contributions pay off in good reputations.A bug fix here
and a bug fix there might not build a name,but after a year or two they
pay off.A good reputation opens doors,wins jobs,creates friendships,
and makes it possible to interest people in new projects.
The free source world is also a strange mirror image of the hierar-
chies that emerge after a season of tribal potlatch ceremonies.In the
tribes,those who receive great gifts are required to return the favor with
even greater ones.So the skillful hunters and gatherers give good gifts
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and receive something better in return.The rich get richer by giving
away their bounty.The less skillful end up at the bottom of the list.The
free source world,on the other hand,spreads its riches out to everyone.
There are many modest programmers who enjoy the source code of the
great programmers,and there may be billions of nonprogrammers who
also tag along. Many major websites run on free OSs alone. . Who
knows which cheap Internet tools will come along in the future? The
poor get lifted along at no great cost to the economy.The charity is
broadcast to everyone,not narrowcast to a few.
The efficiency goes deeper.There’s a whole class of products for the
home that are much fancier and sophisticated than what people need.
One company near me sells perfectly usable nonstick pans for $2.95.A
fancy department store sells hefty,industrial-grade pans that do the
same thing for more than $100.Why? They make great gifts for people
getting married.This wedding-industrial complex adds needless accou-
trements,doodads,and schmaltz just to give products enough caché to
make them great gifts.
The free source world,on the other hand,has no real incentive to
generate phony,chrome-plated glitz to make its gifts acceptable or wor-
thy enough of giving.People give away what they write for themselves,
and they tend to write what they need.The result is a very efficient,
usable collection of software that helps real people solve real problems.
The inefficiency of the wedding-industrial complex, , the Father’s
Day–industrial complex, the Christmas-industrial complex,and their
need to create acceptable gifts are gone.
Of course,there’s also a certain element of selfishness to the charity.
The social prestige that comes from writing good free software is worth
a fair amount in the job market.People like to list accomplishments like
“wrote driver” or “contributed code to Linux Kernel 2.2” on their
résumé.Giving to the right project is a badge of honor because serious
folks doing serious work embraced the gift.That’s often more valuable
and more telling than a plaque or an award from a traditional boss.
Rob Newberry is a programmer at Group Logic,a small software
house in northern Virginia where I once did some consulting.His offi-
cial title is “Director of Fajita Technology,”and he is sometimes known
as “The Dude,” ” a reference to a character in the movie Th
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ki.Technically,his job is building and supporting their products,
which are used to automate the prepress industry.One of their prod-
ucts,known as Mass Transit,will move files over the Internet and exe-
cute a number of automated programs to them before moving them on.
Printers use them to take in new jobs,massage the data to their needs
by performing tasks like color separation,and then send the jobs to the
presses.This work requires great understanding of the various network
protocols like FTP of NFS.
Newberry is also a Linux fan.He reads the Kernel list but rarely con-
tributes much to it.He runs various versions of Linux around the house,
and none of them were working as well as he wanted with his
Macintosh. So he poked around in the software, , fixed it, , and sent
his code off to Alan Cox,who watches over the part of the kernel where
his fixes belonged.
“I contributed some changes to the Appletalk stack that’s in the
Linux Kernel that make it easier for a Linux machine to offer dial-in
services for Macintosh users,”he said in an article published in Sal
“As it stands,Mac users have always been able to dial into a Linux box
and use IP protocols,but if they wanted to use Appletalk over PPP,the
support wasn’t really there.”
Newberry,of course,is doing all of this on his own time because he
enjoys it.But his boss,Derick Naef,still thinks it’s pretty cool that he’s
spending some of his programming energy on a project that won’t add
anything immediately to the bottom line.
“He’s plugged into that community and mailing lists a lot more,”
explains Naef.“There are other people here who are,too,but there are
all these tools out there in the open source world.There’s code out there
that can be incorporated into our computer projects.It can cut your
development costs if you can find stuff you can use.”
Of course,all of this justification and rationalization aren’t the main
reason why Newberry spends so much of his time hacking on Linux.
Sure,it may help his company’s bottom line.Sure,it might beef up his
résumé by letting him brag that he got some code in the Linux kernel.
But he also sees this as a bit of charity.
“I get a certain amount of satisfaction from the work ...but I get a
certain amount of satisfaction out of helping people.Improving Linux
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