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David Whitney
David Whitney

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Open-Source Exploitation

Combative title.

I don’t have a title for this that works.

It’s horrible, it’s difficult, and it’s because all of the titles sound so relentlessly negative that I honestly don’t want to use them. I promise this isn’t about being negative, it’s about the work we have to do to be better as an industry. As someone that doesn’t believe in hills, or like walking up them, or death, or dying, this, I think, is probably the hill I’m going to die on.

I want to talk about how open source has in the most cases, been turned into exploitation by the biggest organisations in the world. How it’s used to extricate free labour from you, and why this is fundamentally a bad thing. I’m going to talk about how we can do better. I’m going to talk about what needs to change to make software, and especially open-source software – something I love dearly – survive.

Because right now, open-source is in the most precarious place it’s ever been in its entire existence, and I feel like hardly anyone is talking about it.

The Discourse Is Dead

Before I start with the gory details, I want to talk about loving things.

More importantly, let’s talk about how it’s important to understand that you can be critical of something that you love because you want it to be better, not because you want to harm it.

I’ve been building open-source software since the actual 1990s. When the internet was a village, and everything was tiny. When I was tiny. But it’s important to understand that on any journey of maturity, the techniques, opinions, and approaches that get you from A to B, are not necessarily the things that you’re going to need to get you from B to C.

People frequently struggle with this fact. Humans are beautiful and oft simple creatures that presume because something has worked before, it’ll work again, regardless of the changing context around us.

As technologists, and an industry, we’re going to have to embrace this if we want open source to survive.

Open Source Won the Fight

At this point we all know this to be true.

You probably use Visual Studio Code at the very least as a text editor.

As of 2018 40% of VMs on Azure were in Linux.

Open source won the hearts and minds of people by telling them that software could and should be free.

What does free really mean?

While the GPL and its variants – were probably not the first permissive and free software licenses – they were the licenses that rapidly gained mindshare with the rising popularity of Linux in the late 90s.

Linux, really, was the tip of the spear that pushed open-source software into the mainstream, and it’s GPL license was originally described by the Free Software Foundation as “free as in speech, not free as in beer”. A confounding statement that a lot of people struggled to understand.

So what does the GPL really mean? In simple terms, if you use source code available under its license, you need to make your changes public for other people to use. This is because the FSF promoted “software freedoms” – literally, the right of software to be liberated, so that it’s users could modify, inspect, and make their own changes to it.

A noble goal, which shows its lineage as the license used to build a Unix clone that was supposed to be freely available to all – a goal centred around people sharing source code at local computer clubs.

It’s important to stress that “free” never meant “free from cost”. It always meant “free as in freedom” – and in fact, much of the original literature focuses on this by describing software that is “free from cost” as “gratis”.

From the FSF FAQs:

Does free software mean using the GPL?

Not at all—there are many other free software licenses. We have an incomplete list. Any license that provides the user certain specific freedoms is a free software license.

Why should I use the GNU GPL rather than other free software licenses? (#WhyUseGPL)

Using the GNU GPL will require that all the released improved versions be free software. This means you can avoid the risk of having to compete with a proprietary modified version of your own work. However, in some special situations it can be better to use a more permissive license.

But it wasn’t that version of free software that really won

Despite Linux, and despite early and limited forays into open source by organisations like RedHat the strong copyleft licenses of the GPL were not the reason open-source software is thriving in the market today.

They’re certainly not the reasons ultra-mega-corps like Microsoft, or Amazon, or Google now champion open source.

The widespread adoption of open-source software in the enterprise is directly related to the MIT license, and the Apache – “permissive” licenses, which don’t force people that build on top of software to re-share their modifications back to the wider communities.

Permissive licensing allows individuals or organisations to take your work, build on top of it, and even operate these modified copies of a work for profit.

Much like the GPL, the aim of open source was not to restrict commercial exploitation, but to ensure the freedom of the software itself.

Who benefits from permissive licensing?

This is a trick question really – because in any situation where there is a power imbalance – let’s say, between the four or five largest organisations in the world, and, some person throwing some code on the internet, the organisation is always the entity that will benefit.

Open-Source became popular in enterprise because of permissive licenses

Without wanting to sound like a naysayer – because I assure you, I deeply love open-source, and software freedom, and the combinatorial value that adds to teaching, and our peers, and each other, I cannot say loud enough:

Multi-national organisations do not give a single solitary fuck about you.

Businesses do not care about you.

But you know what they do care about? They care about free “value” that they are able to commercially exploit. The wide proliferation of software in businesses is a direct result of licenses like the Apache license, and the MIT license being leveraged into closed source, proprietary and for-profit work.

Want to test the theory?

Go into your office tomorrow and try adding some GPL’d code to your companies' applications and see how your line manager responds.

Permissive licenses explicitly and without recourse shift the balance of power towards large technical organisations and away from individual authors and creators. They have the might to leverage code, they have the capability to build upon it, and they have the incentive and organisational structures to profit from doing so.

Open-source software took hold in the enterprise because it allowed itself to be exploited.

Oh come on, exploited? That’s a bit much isn’t it?

Nope. It’s entirely accurate.

exploitation (noun) · exploitations (plural noun)

  • the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.

"the exploitation of migrant workers"

  • the action of making use of and benefiting from resources.

"the Bronze Age saw exploitation of gold deposits"

  • the fact of making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself.

"they are shameless in their exploitation of the fear of death"

Oh wow, that’s got such a negative slant though, surely that’s not fair?

Surely people are smarter than to let their work just get leveraged like this?

The internet runs on exploited and unpaid labour

XKCD is always right

XKCD Dependency_x2

This is just the truth. It’s widely reported. The vast majority of open source projects aren’t funded. Even important ones.

There is no art without patronage. None. The only successful open source projects in the world are either a) backed by enormous companies that use them for strategic marketing and product positioning advantage OR b) rely on the exploitation of free labour for the gain of organisations operating these products as services.

I can see you frothing already – “but GitHub has a donations thing!”, “what about Patreon!”, “I donated once, look!”.

And I see you undermine your own arguments.

We’ve all watched people burn out. We’ve watched people trying to do dual-licensing get verbally assaulted by their own peers for not being “free enough for them”. We’ve watched people go to the effort of the legal legwork to sell support contracts and have single-digit instances of those contracts sold.

We’ve seen packages with 20+ million downloads languish because nobody is willing to pay for the work. It’s a hellscape. It victimises creators.

I would not wish a successful open-source project on anyone.

Let’s ask reddit

(Never ask reddit)

I recently made the observation in a reddit thread that it’s utterly wild that I can stream myself reading an open-source codebase on YouTube and people will happily allow me to profit from it, but the open-source community has become so wrongheaded that the idea of charging for software is anathema to them.

Let’s get some direct quotes:

“Ahh, so you hate gcc and linux too, since they're developed by and for companies?”

“Arguing against free software? What year is it?!”

“If it’s free, why wouldn’t it be free to everyone? That includes organizations. I’m honestly not clear what you’re suggesting, specifically and logistically.”

Obviously I was downvoted to oblivion because people seemed to interpret “perhaps multinational organisations should pay you for your work” as “I don’t think software freedom is good”.

But I was more astonished by people suggesting that charging for software was somehow in contradiction with the “ethos” of open source, when all that position really shows is an astonishing lack of literacy of what open source really means.

Lars Ulrich Was Right

In 1999 Napster heralded the popularisation of peer-to-peer file sharing networks. And Metallica litigated and were absolutely vilified for doing so.

The music business had become a corporate fat cat, nickel and diming everyone with exorbitant prices for CDs (£20+ for new releases!), bands were filthy rich and record executives more-so.

And we all cried – “what do Metallica know about this! They’re rich already! We just want new music!”.

I spent my mid-teens pirating music on Napster, and AudioGalaxy, and Limewire, and Kazaa, and Direct Connect, and and and and and and. And you know what? If anyone had spent time listening to what Lars Ulrich (Metallica’s drummer) was actually saying at the time, they’d realise he was absolutely, 100% correct, and in the two decades since has been thoroughly vindicated.

I read an interview with him recently, where he looks back on it – and he’s reflective. What he actually said at the time was “We’re devaluing the work of musicians. It doesn’t affect me, but it will affect every band that comes after me. I’m already a multi-millionaire. File sharing devalues the work, and once it’s done, it can never be undone.”

And he was right.

After ~1999, the music industry was never the same. Small touring bands that would make comfortable livings scrape by in 2020. Niche and underground genres, while more vibrant than ever, absolutely cannot financially sustain themselves. It doesn’t scale. We devalued the work by giving it all away.

And when you give it all away, the only people that profit are the large organisations that are in power.

Spotify, today, occupies the space that music labels once did, a vastly profitable large organisations while artists figuratively starve.

YOU ARE HERE

I wish I had the fine wine and art collection of Ulrich, but forgive me for feeling a little bit like I’m standing here desperately hoping that people listen to this message.
Because we are here, right now.

I love open-source, just like Lars loved tape trading and underground scenes, but the ways in which we allow it to be weaponised is a violence. It doesn’t put humans, maintainers, creators and authors at its centre – instead, it puts organisational exploitation as the core goal.

We all made a tragic mistake in thinking that the ownership model that was great for our local computing club could scale to planet-sized industry.

How did we get here?

Here’s the scariest part, really.
We got here because this is what we wanted to do.
I did this. You did this. We all made mistakes.

I’ve spent the last decade advocating for the adoption of open-source in mid-to-large organisations.

I, myself, sat and wrote policies suggesting that while we needed to adopt and contribute if we could (largely, organisations never do) to open-source for both strategic and marketing benefit, that we really should only look at permissive licensed software, because anything else would incur cost at best, and force us to give away our software at worst.

And god, was I dead wrong.

I should’ve spent that time advocating that we licensed dual-licensed software. That we bought support contracts. That we participated in copyleft software and gave back to the community.

I was wrong, and I’m sorry, I let you all down.

I’m not the only one

Every time a small organisation or creator tries to license their software in a way that protects them from the exploitation of big business – like Elastic, or recently Apollo, or numerous others over the years – the community savages them, without realising that it’s the community savaging itself.

We need to be better at supporting each other, at knowing whenever a creator cries burn-out, or that they can’t pay rent in kudos, or that they need to advertise for work in their NPM package, that they mean it. That it could easily be you in that position.

We need new licenses, and a new culture, which prioritises the freedom of people from exploitation, over the freedom of software.

I want you to get paid. I want you to have nice things. I want you to work sustainably. I want a world where it’s viable for smart people to build beautiful things and make a living because of it.

If we must operate inside a late-stage-capitalistic hellhole, I want it to be on our terms.

Can companies ever ethically interact with open-source?

Absolutely yes.

And here’s a little bit of light, before I talk about what we need to do the readdress this imbalance.

There are companies that do good work in open-source, and fund it well. They all have reasons for doing so, and even some of the biggest players have reasonably ethical open-source products, but they always do it for marketing position, and for mindshare, and ultimately, to sell products and services and that’s ok.

If we’re to interact with these organisations, there is nothing wrong with taking and using software they make available, for free, but remember that your patronage is always the product.
Even the projects that you may perceive to be “independent”, like Linux, all have funding structures or staff provided from major organisations.

The open-source software that you produce is not the same kind of open-source software that they do, and it’s foolish to perceive it to be the same thing.

How can we change the status quo?

We need both better approaches, and better systems, along with the cooperation of all the major vendors to really make a dent in this problem.

It will not be easy. But there’s a role for all of us in this.

Support creators

This is the easiest, and the most free of all the ways we’ll solve this problem.

The next time each of you is about to send a shitty tweet because Docker desktop made delaying updates a paid feature, perhaps, just for a second, wonder why they might be doing that.

The next time you see a library you like adopting an “open-core” licensing model, where the value-added features, or the integrations are paid for features – consider paying for the features.

Whenever a maintainer asks for support or contributions on something you use, contribute back.

Don’t be entitled, don’t shout down your peers, don’t troll them for trying to make a living. If we all behaved like this, the software world would be a lot kinder.

Rehabilitate package management

I think it’s table stakes for the next iteration of package managers and component sharing platforms to support billing. I’d move to a platform that put creator sustainability at its heart at a moment’s notice.

I have a theory that more organisations would pay for software if there were existing models that supported or allowed it. Most projects couldn’t issue an invoice, or pay taxes, or accept credit cards, if they tried.

Our next-generation platforms need to support this for creator sustainability. We’re seeing the first steps towards these goals with GitHub sponsorships, and nascent projects like SDKBin – the “NuGet, but paid” distribution platform.

Petition platform vendors

A step up from that? I want to pay for libraries that I use in my Azure bill. In my AWS bill. In my GCP bill.

While I’ve railed against large organisations leveraging open-source throughout, large organisations aren’t fundamentally bad, immoral, or evil, I just believe they operate in their best interest. The first platform that lets me sell software components can have their cut too. That’s fair. That’s help.

I think this would unlock a whole category of software sales that just doesn’t exist trivially in the market today. Imagine if instead of trying to work through some asinine procurement process, you could just add NuGet, or NPM, or Cargo packages and it’ll be accounted for and charged appropriately by your cloud platform vendor over a private package feed.

This is the best thing a vendor could do to support creators – they could create a real marketplace. One that’s sustainable for everyone inside of it.

Keep fighting for free software

For users! For teachers! For your friends!

I feel like I need to double down on what I said at the start. I love open-source software dearly. I want it to survive. But we must understand that what got it to a place of success is something that is currently threatening its sustainable existence.

Open-source doesn’t have to a proxy for the exploitation of the individual.

It can be ethical.
It can survive this.

I do not want to take your source code away from you, I just desperately want to have enough people think critically about it, that when it’s your great new idea that you think you can do something meaningful with, that it’s you that can execute on and benefit from the idea.

By all means give it away to your peers but spare no pity for large organisations that want to profit from your work at your expense.

Support the scene

In music, there’s the idea of supporting our scene, our heritage, the shared place where “the art” comes from.

This is our culture.

Pay your friends for their software and accept it gracefully if they want to give it you for free.

Footnotes - see this live!

An expanded version of this piece is available as a conference talk - if you would like me to come and talk to your user-group or conference about ethics and open-source, please get in touch.

Discussion (13)

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jayjeckel profile image
Jay Jeckel

There is a lot in this article, so I'll start with a summarized response and then get into responding to specific points.


The purpose of open source is to ensure all users the freedom to do as they please with the software they have access to. Nothing more, nothing less. Open source isn't here to make people money. If one is participating in open source to make money, then they are doing it wrong.

Libre, free as in freedom, is the core concept of open source and anything that interferes or opposes that concept, such as limiting who has the freedom or restricting that freedom to only those that pay (whether explicitly or by convention), is against open source.

While gratis, free as in beer, isn't the core concept of open source, it is the prevailing attitude for good reason; it is the first line of defense to ensure that everyone has access to their libre freedoms, not just those with a sufficient size of bank account.

The open source community is a wonder of the world. One would be hard pressed to find another that exemplifies the concept of openness and sharing to a greater degree than the open source community. Sharing is Caring, after all, and anyone that truly loves open source understands that. It doesn't matter if the one being shared with is a billion dollar company or a dirt poor kid in Dirthole, Nowhere, software should be free as in freedom for all.

In the end, one can claim all they want that they love open source, but suggesting we lessen or abandon the gratis attitude or the libre philosophy brings that claim in question.


Multi-national organisations do not give a single solitary fuck about you.
Businesses do not care about you.

Good, because I don't give a single solitary fuck about them, and that includes not caring if they use open source software as long as they do so in accordance with the software's license.

They care about free “value” that they are able to commercially exploit. The wide proliferation of software in businesses is a direct result of licenses like the Apache license, and the MIT license being leveraged into closed source, proprietary and for-profit work.

Yep, that is why we won. That is why open source is better than closed source. I use my own open source code in my own for-profit projects, because that's kinda the entire point, making the software ecosystem better for everyone by sharing code freely and openly.

Go into your office tomorrow and try adding some GPL’d code to your companies' applications and see how your line manager responds.

Right, so? Try introducing some GPLed code into an open source MIT project and see how far you get. The answer is not far at all. GPL served its purpose in its time, but now it's an outdated bloated mess of a virus that should generally be avoided and not wanting that virus in one's codebase suggests nothing other than good judgement.

Permissive licenses explicitly and without recourse shift the balance of power towards large technical organisations and away from individual authors and creators.

No, they don't. They "explicitly" level the playing field so that people with money and people without money have exactly the same access to and freedoms with open source software. Neither has more or less access or freedoms than the other. That is practically the definition of equality.

Oh come on, exploited? That’s a bit much isn’t it?
Nope. It’s entirely accurate.

No, it isn't. If you give your software away openly (libre) and for free (gratis), then it isn't exploitation when someone uses that software however they want without paying you.

There is no art without patronage. None.

If this was true then the open source community wouldn't exist and you wouldn't be here suggesting that open source will die without patronage. Not to mention all the great art that exists and was created by starving artists without patronage. Great art is created by those with passion, regardless of how much money they have.

The only successful open source projects in the world are either a) backed by enormous companies that use them for strategic marketing and product positioning advantage OR b) rely on the exploitation of free labour for the gain of organisations operating these products as services.

Oh yea? Notepad++ would like to have a word with you. It's an open source best-in-class product that isn't backed by enormous companies and isn't operating as a product as a service. That was just the first open source end-user product that jumped to mind. If we expand to include libraries/packages and other developer-focused products, then the list would be almost endless. In other words, you are wrong, there are tons and tons of successful open source projects that aren't backed by enormous companies and don't have anything at all to do with SaaS.

Obviously I was downvoted to oblivion because people seemed to interpret “perhaps multinational organisations should pay you for your work” as “I don’t think software freedom is good”.

You may not realize it, but that is exactly what you are saying. Once you start treating one type of user different from another, the software is no longer libre. Once you start charging for software you're doing basically the same thing, saying those who can pay have freedom to use the software and those without money don't have that freedom. That's fine if that's how you want to roll, but don't fool yourself into thinking that the software is still open.

But I was more astonished by people suggesting that charging for software was somehow in contradiction with the “ethos” of open source, when all that position really shows is an astonishing lack of literacy of what open source really means.

Open source means freedom. Simple as. Anything that limits that freedom is in opposition with it.

Lars Ulrich Was Right

No he wasn't. He was a rich ass and should have kept his mouth shut.

The music business had become a corporate fat cat, nickel and diming everyone with exorbitant prices for CDs

Yep, spot on.

I spent my mid-teens pirating music on Napster, and AudioGalaxy, and Limewire, and Kazaa, and Direct Connect

Same here.

If anyone had spent time listening to what Lars Ulrich (Metallica’s drummer) was actually saying at the time, they’d realise he was absolutely, 100% correct, and in the two decades since has been thoroughly vindicated.

No he wasn't correct and no he hasn't been vindicated.

After ~1999, the music industry was never the same. Small touring bands that would make comfortable livings scrape by in 2020. Niche and underground genres, while more vibrant than ever, absolutely cannot financially sustain themselves. It doesn’t scale. We devalued the work by giving it all away.

And when you give it all away, the only people that profit are the large organisations that are in power.

Spotify, today, occupies the space that music labels once did, a vastly profitable large organisations while artists figuratively starve.

Sorry for quoting so much text, but where in any of that is Lars proved right? There are lots of reasons that bands have a hard time making money (a vastly increased pool of competition and easier consumer access to that competition being two of the main ones), but the biggest reason is that they are exploited by the corporations. If pirating of music was at fault, then the music industry itself wouldn't be making money hand over fist. None of this is the fault of free music, pirated or otherwise, and since musicians were never intending to give their music away freely or openly, comparing it to the open source world is like comparing a bird to a book.

We all made a tragic mistake in thinking that the ownership model that was great for our local computing club could scale to plant-sized industry.

It scales just fine. The only ones that seem to have a problem are those that think a company making money off their FOSS is somehow an affront to humanity. A company making money off your FOSS is no different than another dev making money off your FOSS. Both represent the system working exactly as intended, ensuring the freedom of all people to do as they wish with the software they have.

Every time a small organisation or creator tries to license their software in a way that protects them from the exploitation of big business – like Elastic, or recently Apollo, or numerous others over the years – the community savages them, without realising that it’s the community savaging itself.

Yea, what a surprise. The open source community gets mad when a developer builds their software on our backs under our name and then abandons our philosophies while also still wanting to use our name for its "marketing benefit".

It's simple. You want to be open source? Then be open source. You don't want to be open source, then don't be open source and keep our name out of your marketing mouths.

We need to be better at supporting each other, at knowing whenever a creator cries burn-out, or that they can’t pay rent in kudos, or that they need to advertise for work in their NPM package, that they mean it. That it could easily be you in that position.

Open source isn't here to pay your rent. Open source is here to protect and promote your right to do with software as wish. Plain and simple, nothing more and nothing less, hands down, QED, end of.

We need new licenses, and a new culture, which prioritises the freedom of people from exploitation, over the freedom of software.

Cool, then go do that, write those licenses and create that culture. Just don't pretend that what you're doing is open source and don't be surprised when your strategy fails against the gratis libre philosophy.

The open-source software that you produce is not the same kind of open-source software that they do, and it’s foolish to perceive it to be the same thing.

If their software is permissively licensed like my software is, then they are the same as both protect my freedom to do what I want with the code.

Support creators

Sure. If a dev offers a way to buy them a coffee or to donate to their efforts and you like what they do and you have money to spare, then throw them some coins. Nothing wrong with that.

But, instead of giving money to the project creator, it would be a lot better if you gave back to the entire open source community by improving the project itself.

The next time each of you is about to send a shitty tweet because Docker desktop made delaying updates a paid feature, perhaps, just for a second, wonder why they might be doing that.

Anyone about to tweet should stop and just not, but that is beside the point. Instead of sending that shitty tweet, they should instead go find an open source alternative that respects their freedoms and doesn't charge money for already implemented features. If there isn't an open source alternative, then they should create one to show that the freedom of everyone to access and use software is more important than anyone's profits.

The next time you see a library you like adopting an “open-core” licensing model, where the value-added features, or the integrations are paid for features – consider paying for the features.

No. Instead, go find a real open source alternative that respects your freedoms. Or go find a real proprietary alternative that provides a major bang for your buck. But don't support these wishy washy semi-open products that want your money but also want all the accolades and marketing benefits of pretending to be open source. Either have your cake or eat it, but you can't do both.

Don’t be entitled, don’t shout down your peers, don’t troll them for trying to make a living. If we all behaved like this, the software world would be a lot kinder.

Agreed, the software world would be a lot better without those that think they are entitled to both money and open source status.

For users! For teachers! For your friends!

No, not just for users, teachers, and friends. Libre applies to everyone, even people you don't like and even people you don't like doing things you don't like. Because either everyone has software freedom or no one does.

I feel like I need to double down on what I said at the start. I love open-source software dearly. I want it to survive.

You say you love open source, but you've just written a bunch of words that suggest you want to abandon the core tenet of what makes open source what it is, the freedom for anyone (even dirty evil corporations) to do whatever they want with the software they have access to.

In music, there’s the idea of supporting our scene, our heritage, the shared place where “the art” comes from.
This is our culture.

Cool, good for the music scene. We programmers have a Free and Open Source culture and while your culture is dieing under the boot of the corporate world, we won our war and now the corporate world is at our door begging us to let them play in our pool. That considered, maybe your scene should take some hints from us and you might have a fighting chance against the RIAA and the rest of your corporate establishment.

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david_whitney profile image
David Whitney Author

The central point of the piece is my disagreement with this:

It doesn't matter if the one being shared with is a billion dollar company or a dirt poor kid in Dirthole, Nowhere, software should be free as in freedom for all.

It does matter. It should matter. And the lassiez fair attitude that suggests software freedom is more important than freedom from exploitation is wrongheaded.

I appreciate your well reasoned reply, but I (obviously) disagree. Buying people coffee isn't the same as paying rent, and if the prevailing attitude (gratis) is tyrannical, it has to change.

The FSF fundamentally understood this at the very start, before the open-source movement tried to open up free software to corporate exploitation.

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jayjeckel profile image
Jay Jeckel • Edited on

It does matter. It should matter. And the lassiez fair attitude that suggests software freedom is more important than freedom from exploitation is wrongheaded.

And that is what I don't understand. Where is the line that makes it exploitation? If I make a for-profit app using an open source piece of software, that's not exploitation, but if Microsoft or Amazon make the same app it is exploitation? Or am I wrong and it would also be exploitation if I made the app since my company was successful enough for me to retire in my thirties? What is the deciding factor between exploiting and not explointing?

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david_whitney profile image
David Whitney Author

Exploitation is all about a power imbalance (in almost every context).

When the organisation exploiting your work is several orders of magnitude more equipped to do so than you are, your choice and agency is removed. In those very specific examples - a small for-profit organisation may well be literally exploiting your work, but they are much more likely to interact in reasonable / good faith than a large organisation that's able to litigate you out of existence, or replace your entire position in the market on a whim.

It's not cut and dry, but the larger the imbalance of power, the more it trends towards exploitation by the original metric - "the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work".

Folks that work in software are often deeply uncomfortable with that non-absolute, grey ambiguity, but it doesn't make it any less true. The scale of exploitation available to the largest organisations on earth who have the might to do as they wish, is vastly different than a small vague co-operative sibling org adding value to your work.

Even as a trite example "totally free, unless your company makes more than $3m a year" would probably be a better licensing term than anything that exists at the moment w.r.t exploitation. Sharing supports nobody, in that relationship.

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jayjeckel profile image
Jay Jeckel

So from your perspective it is the existence of the power imbalance that makes it exploitation regardless of the actions actually taken, or perhaps because of that actions that the more powerful party could take in the future. That's interesting, I've never considered it from that angle.

Folks that work in software are often deeply uncomfortable with that non-absolute, grey ambiguity

Yep, that describes my feeling of it to a tee. I'm much more comfortable with an absolute stance, ala anyone can make money or no one can make money type of license.

Thanks for your response. I still don't agree, but you have given me some things worth thinking about. :)

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david_whitney profile image
David Whitney Author

This is the kind of good faith conversation I'm here for 🖤

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markrendle profile image
Mark Rendle ❄

The only ones that seem to have a problem are those that think a company making money off their FOSS is somehow an affront to humanity. A company making money off your FOSS is no different than another dev making money off your FOSS. Both represent the system working exactly as intended, ensuring the freedom of all people to do as they wish with the software they have.

Why is it OK for everyone to make money off your FOSS except you?

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Bernd Wechner • Edited on

This is not an uncommon modern observation. But methinks it suffers a little from the myopic effect. Which is no crisis, most things do. There's real challenge to putting on a pair of good glasses and seeing the broader landscape.

In this smaller landscape though I think you are on the money (pun noted), that one way to lighten the issues observed is to make it much easier to contribute. A consistent and simple minimal hassle way of contributing to any package one uses regularly. I am a regular contributor for Wikipedia and PyDev and occasionaly other software but it always a combination of:

  • the utility I perceive I'm getting,
  • how much I'm earning with it (generally nix) and
  • how easy it is to pay.

Github is helping a little with Issue bounties but we can go further, and there should be convenient donation buttons almost everywhere FOSS can be had that supports every conceivable means of payment there is. There's a FOSS project in developing that framework - we have approximations but nothing quite there yet and certainly not so easy to implement (as easy as falling off a log) that I see it everywhere. I see a diverse mixed landscape of sparsely implemented options to contribute and sometimes I want to and don't because they don't accept PayPal which is basically all I'll use to pay online (and no I don't need any advice or preaching on what I can do or how I need to broaden my payment means - I don't shop Amazon for that reason and I'm good with it, no skin off my nose).

But back to glasses just donned, and landscape this all rests in. It rests in a broken world economy, one in which we simply don't know how to work with money and monetary policy is poorly managed almost everywhere under some pretense that it operates like a household budget. Alas I'm not sure how many IT geeks here (I use the term affectionately, I am one) are well enough versed in money theory to understand what monetary policy is (as distinct from fiscal policy).

The briefest of primers: Fiscal policy is about revenue and expenses and managing budgets and a little like a household budget indeed. Monetary policy is about the production and distribution of money. The only institutions with monetary policy in hand are national governments. Internal states and councils and other structures are all constrained to fiscal policy. Banks were given a much greater role in monetary policy over the past half century, but essentially it rests with those who control the definition of currency.

That may seem, a digression but it's not. The only reason you can see corporate abuse of FOSS is because of the haves and have notes in the landscape. The corporate haves and the FOSS developing have nots. The solution is blur that distinction.

My personal approach is simple enough but rests on good fortune and privilege as so many freedoms do. I simply have a part time job, not 40 hours a week, 25. And that is what I'm paid for. That affords me the opportunity to use the skills I have to further my own needs and on the periphery clubs that I support and in the process to develop a few things and contribute to other things etc. But that is just "a" solution, not "the" solution. it shares properties with "the" solution which is general and as stated to blur the boundaries between have and have not.

And it's not all bad. I mean one reason FOSS is doing so well must surely also be the failure of corporate efforts. That is, significant products(Mozilla?) are FOSS because they did not commercialise successfully and rather than being buried were released into the wild. And on the tail of that we saw bigger companies releasing non-core internal tech to the wild, Bootstrap, React etc. Not core, meaning they weren't selling it, had no desire to go into that market but needed internal tools which the figured might live longer and better if they went into more widespread use and had more contributors.

Anyhow, I may be awry in some of that and am always open to better historians piping up.

My point though remains that part of your call to more ethical use of FOSS by corporations rests in easier payment, and possibly also in licenses that are less liberal. Rat include terms that lay claim to %age of profit of any business that profits from its use say as tricky as it would be to enforce it could start by being requested - but create a problem also in who to pay, or how to distribute any income among developers ... the point being the whole landscape needs review and there aren't good guys and bad guys and exploiters and victims so much as there is need to contributes better rewarded monetarily so as to ensure they continue flowing as the phenomenon of FOSS maintainer burnout is part of what is driving these observations.

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Jon Rowett

Great stuff. It's a common category error to see "Person" and "Business" as concrete implementations of abstract "Entity". People and businesses (or to be Marxist about it, workers and and those who profit from our labour) have nothing in common and their motivations will always be fundamentally antagonistic for as long as this embarassing episode of human history continues, with its woefully implemented algorithms governing the fair distribution of resources.

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Ian Turton

An interesting article and some interesting responses - my view point is a little different. I'm an open source developer and have been since the 1990s - I work for an primarily open source company that provides (amongst other things) support contracts for open source software. So it can be argued that I make my living from my (and others) open source code - we mostly support companies and local government orgs using GeoServer (which I started and continue to develop) there is one proprietary competitor and one open source one - I like to think that GeoServer is the best of those, but I have no problem with people (and my employer) using MapServer (the other open source one), and people who go with those are happy to buy training and support because the alternative is to pay big bucks to ESRI (for in my opinion an inferior product).

However, not all is roses. This week end the LOG4J2 debacle hit and dozens of companies that use GeoServer suddenly appeared on the user list asking for a fix, these are people who had never contributed a dime to development or technical debt reduction or even new features - but suddenly they thought that the could expect me (and the rest of the devs) to work at the weekend to fix their problem!

Also, we still use GPL and LGPL on the grounds I am happy for people to use my code for free (and gratis) but if they modify it I want those improvements back for everyone rather than being hoarded by corporations trying to get rich on my labour.

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hbgl • Edited on

How can you claim that people get exploited when it is them who release their work into the public with a permissive license? We live in a copyright world so just slap on whatever license you want and be done with it. But then you cannot complain when nobody adopts your work.
The bottom line is that you need to come up with a good business model if you want to monetize your work. You cannot blame big companies or the people who don't donate when it's your business model that sucks.

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David Whitney Author

People can be exploited without being aware of it.

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Liftoff Studios • Edited on

This is a really good article
And I genuinely have your perspective on this
This deserves more likes 😃