Subject: Re: Commercializing Open Source Software
From: Ian Lance Taylor <>
Date: 5 Apr 1999 01:37:00 -0400

   Date: 5 Apr 1999 03:52:00 -0000
   From: Russell Nelson <>

   Russell Nelson writes:
    > I haven't gotten to the end, yet, so I don't know "who dun it", but so 
    > far Peter has the clue nature:

   It's a good essay.  It's even arguably the "right" solution.  But I
   imagine that Stallman would reject use licensing, and I am sure that
   the OSI board would reject use licensing, because it recently did just 

I've appended the response I tried to load onto Slashdot.  It wouldn't
go up, for some reason--maybe it was too long--so I posted a couple of
partials (including one complete confusion on my part when I tried to
post it using lynx).

I was more interested in his psychological analysis than in his
pricing scheme.  As somebody said on Slashdot, his scheme is like
Xanadu.  We haven't seen Xanadu yet, and I don't expect we'll see
anything like what he suggests.  It can't work without a lot of
infrastructure, and I don't think there is enough motivation for
anybody to build that infrastructure.


The author makes a detour into evolutionary psychology to attempt to
explain gift cultures.  Here he makes the usual mistake of thinking
that all human behaviour can be explained with reference to
reproduction.  This is implausible on the face of it, as can be seen
by the existence of strict homosexuals and monasteries.  Humans,
conscious thinking beings, have a much wider range of motivations than
the simple desire to reproduce.

Even in the terms of evolutionary psychology, the reasoning is
suspect.  The sexual selection strategy of peacocks is indeed
interesting and instructive (although I'll note that Darwin
anticipated sexual selection strategies, so the comment that the
peacocks had not read the Origin of Species misstates Darwin's
understanding of the idea he invented).  However, when it comes to the
example of the hunter (presumed to be male), it's hardly obvious that
women are selecting good hunters on the basis of respect.  A good
hunter can do well for the very obvious reason that he is a good
hunter, quite apart from the benefits of respect.  Women might prefer
to have children with such a hunter simply because those children
would in turn be good hunters and would therefore do well, to say
nothing of the benefits of having a good hunter caring for the
children.  Even if we buy into the notion that reproduction is the
main determinant of human behaviour, this example gives very little
reason to think that respect is a primary sexual selection

The author argues that selection for respect helped lead to potlatch
cultures.  Potlatch cultures developed in an unusual area with a large
amount of resources available for easy gathering.  It's interesting to
note that the potlatch cultures did not develop traditional
agriculture, but were nevertheless able to create large settled
communities, simply because the natural resources were so abundant.

Just as we in the U.S. prefer to elect a president who keeps the
economy running strong, the potlatch culture villages preferred
leaders who were able to supply their needs well.  In a culture of
abundance, it became possible for a leader to demonstrate that ability
by showing that he had a super-abundance--so much stuff that he had no
need for it, and could actually destroy it and still be well off.
Clearly somebody that well off would be a good supplier.

Of course, that explanation is just as simple-minded as the one based
on evolutionary psychology.  In reality, people's motivations are
complex, and can not be so easily analyzed.  The point is that there
is no need to refer human actions back to reproductive strategies;
other explanations serve just as well.

Another point is that although hackers operate in a gift culture, it
is radically different from the gift cultures studied in anthropology
courses.  Traditional gift cultures give away material goods; hackers
give away information, which as we all know is the gift that can be
given to somebody else without losing the use of it yourself.  The
true gift of the hacker is the time spent programming, not the actual
goods given away.

But giving away time needs no special explanation.  Many people
volunteer for charities, write letters to the editor or /., or just
spend time on their on personal hobbies.  After all, you have to spend
the day somehow; it would be absurd to analyze's everybody's hobbies
in terms of their contribution to reproductive success.  Hackers are a
very unusual case in that the time spent hacking produces an object
with near-magical properties: it can be replicated an unbounded number
of times, and it can bring a direct benefit to other people.

There is no need to use evolutionary psychology to explain hackers.
The key is to understand the unprecedented nature of the medium within
which they work.