Fresh off the controversy over Orrin Hatch’s failure to register software, we have an interesting post from Kevin on the problems of open source software:

I’ve been a skeptic of Open Source for a long time, and it’s not because I have anything against Linux. My problem is more fundamental: how do you keep these projects going? To pick a specific example, what happens to Linux when Linus Torvalds gets bored with it?

While I have long held this view myself–being a capitalist and believer in economic incentives as a necessary spur for creativity–I’m no longer so sure.

For one example of talented people devoting an inordinate amount of their time and energy to a product with virtually no reward, I’d offer the example of blogging. Aside from Andrew Sullivan and a handful of professional writers who have managed to actually make this a profitable endeavor, most of us are actually losing money on this gig. But we do it for some minor recognition, satisfaction gained from the interactivity, or whatever.

Scott Adams makes a similar point in one of his Dilbert books; I think The Dilbert Principle. He notes the huge volume of e-mail he gets every day that provides him free research and ideas for his strip, despite the fact that the readers must know that not only will they get no money for their ideas, they won’t even get mentioned in the strip. Indeed, they likely won’t even get a reply to their e-mail! But people seem to have a fascination with sharing their knowledge with anyone who will listen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tom Royce says:


    Blogging is a hobby. Our world is so fast and furious that we forget that programmed into our psyche is the need to find an ability to express ourselves. Sort of like the old timer who wittles and tells story outside of the barbershop. I heard he has a blog now too…

  2. James Joyner says:

    I think that’s right. But, presumably, working on open source software could provide that outlet for people with those talents.

  3. Chris A. says:

    Open Source keeps itself going. If a project is useful, it will develop a group of people who care about it. This will keep it going.

    If, on the other hand, people don’t gather around it, then the project probably doesn’t need to exist.

  4. AngelKnight2780 says:

    I’ll be honest – there’s one thing that makes me wonder if open source will be viable, and it’s something that many of its defenders tend to miss:

    If open source is the end all and be all of software development, then why does the movement feel the need to convert at knifepoint?

    I wonder how many of you have taken the time to ever read the GNU Public Licence (GPL)? If you did, you would realize how wrong it is. First, the GPL is viral. What that means it that if you were to use code from a GPL program in your program, you don’t get a choice about what licence you use – your program is GPL code. Why do you think that bison (a GPL parser generator) uses a modified version of the GPL? Because under the standard licence, any parser made by bison would immediately be under the GPL, and so would any program using that parser. There would be no commercial viability for a tool that makes anything it is used on governed by the GPL.

    The other major problem with the GPL is that the creator loses any distribution rights whatsoever. Yes, I know the licence says that the creator may set any price that they wish. But the GPL also gives the end user the same rights. With peer to peer file sharing networks the way they are now, a GPL program that was even moderately popular – a program that could make the programmer a moderate living if he controlled distribution rights – would be obtained for free, not bought. The programmer also has no control over how his project is used – something that has probably killed quite a few projects. (Read up on the bnetd issue from a year ago – Blizzard and Vivendi would most likely have been willing to let bnetd sail under their radar had it not been for the fact that a splinter group made a variant that would allow the online play of the beta of Warcraft III – a splinter formed because the core bnetd devs chose not to add that functionality for that reason.)

    It’s interesting how much Stallman pushes to have people accept that Linux is under the GPL – something that is considered to this day to be a fringe notion. And I wonder exactly where open source would be today if it wasn’t for the GPL. The GPL is the one thing that makes me shy away from open source, considering how much of open source is under the GPL.