Free Software

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1999

The growing popularity of Linux fascinates me.  On the one hand we have an operating system, Windows, developed at great expense by the corporation with the highest market valuation of any company on earth.  On the other hand, we have an operating system, Linux, developed by some 40,000 volunteers, and given away freely.  Some even say Linux is better than Windows.  I won’t take sides, but the idea that a bunch of relatively unorganized volunteers can compete with a giant corporation by giving away an equivalent product has to be an intriguing example of how value is created in the information age.

Linux is open source software, meaning that the source code is available to everyone, and that anyone is able to add or modify the code.  Thousands of people, many of whom are software professionals themselves, give freely of their time and talents to build upon this platform.  So why do they do it, and why doesn’t the code fragment into hundreds of incompatible versions?  The short answers are they do they do it for “art and glory” and that the code is held together by an unwritten sociology defining the proper way to obtain this glory.

How many jobs, I ask myself, would other people choose to do for free?  For “art and glory,” as it were?  Surely this is unusual.  I imagine a laborer digging a ditch, looking up to see a parallel ditch being dug by volunteers, who want to share the exhilaration of accomplishment.  This picture does not compute.  But, on second thought, there are many jobs where other people do similar activities freely.  Commercial pilots are often well paid, while amateur pilots pay highly to do the same activity.  Amateur gardeners compete with professionals.  Volunteers teach for the love of teaching.  Aspiring musicians put their MP3 music onto free web sites.  The list goes on and on.

I write this column for free (please don’t snicker!), while professional writers make their livings from similar efforts.  I consider it a great privilege to be able to publish my own writings.  I recall when IEEE first instituted the practice of charging authors “page charges” in order to publish their pages.  There was quite an uproar at first when members rebelled against the thought that after contributing a free good – their paper – to the membership, it would be further necessary to subsidize its publication from their own budgets.  The argument came down to the question of who the publication system was for – the author or the reader?  The surprising answer in our profession is that it is largely for the author.

Would someone else do your job for free?  It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure which answer is preferred.  To say that no one would choose to do what you do in the absence of pay is somehow demeaning.  My own job is probably typical of many, in that there are aspects of “art and glory,” but I smile wryly at the thought of volunteers choosing to attend management meetings or to wrestle with personnel problems.  Often the problem with a job is that it is a whole, compulsory package – you can’t choose which parts to ignore.

How far does this model of volunteer-produced goods stretch?  I have a lasting memory of the house being built almost instantly by the Amish community volunteers in the movie, “Witness.”  An ant-like community of neighbors crawls over the structure, and in the blink of an eye a “free” house emerges from the chaos.  Should General Motors worry about volunteers making free cars in a similar fashion?  I imagine volunteers coming together to design and build a striking new model of car.  What great art and glory that would be!  But in the end they would have one car, like the one house, in an ocean of millions, so GM has nothing whatsoever to worry about.

This is what is different about software and the new environment created by the Internet.  First, the net creates and enables the community to collaborate across geography and time.  It brings together people who would never in the past have been aware of each other or of the project itself.  More importantly, however, the Internet is the world’s greatest copy machine.  Software has the property, shared by most information goods, that it can be perfectly replicated at almost no cost.  Unlike the house or the car, one copy of Linux is all that is needed to feed the world.  This is the magic and the paradox of information.

In the 1980s Richard Stallman created the GNU project (“Gnu’s Not Unix”) in an effort to create an open source, free, version of Unix.  One of the programs that came out of Stallman’s efforts was the freeware word processor, Emacs, which was much beloved by programmers during that era.  Stallman wrote his philosophy of free software in his “GNU Manifesto” – an essay that reads much like a speech from a book by Ayn Rand.

“I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.  Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others.  I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.  I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.”

As in the case of free distribution of music and other intellectual property, the classic argument is that, unless there is monetary compensation (i.e., money), the sources of creativity will dry up.  Maybe so.  Or perhaps there is something about software that entices people to contribute their efforts on a volunteer basis.  Certainly, there are a tremendous number of freeware and shareware programs available on the net in addition to the various open source efforts.  Even the commercial software vendors benefit from the oversight and bug reports of thousands of users of their imperfect, unfinished code.  Unpaid volunteers all – and all in the name of art and glory.


Robert W. Lucky