Subject: Re: Successful FSBs
From: "Tim O'Reilly" <>
Date: Sat, 02 Nov 2002 10:01:14 -0800

On 10/31/02 1:50 AM, "eric hamilton" <> wrote:

>> This somehow triggered a line of thought, and I now know why I
>> believe
>> Tim is wrong.  Ie, why I believe that defining FSB, and defining it
>> to
>> involve _developing_ open source software, is important.
> I agree on this point.  A company that relies on, but does not
> contribute to open-source development should not be considered an FSB.
> If it is not a large part of the company product or brand, how can we
> look to them for guidance?  Sure, they may have money in the bank, but
> how does that help me evolve MY business model if we're doing
> completely different things?  How does it help the solitary open-source
> software developer turn his geek-hobby into a business oportunity?

I don't disagree with "contributing" as a key requirement of defining an
FSB.  But let me ask you this, how do you define "contribute"?  There are a
lot of people who consider themselves "contributors" on an individual basis
who simply supply bug fixes.  Does the contribution have to be of a scale
commensurate with the size of the organization?   Does it mean that an
organization has to contribute *every* fix and extension?

As I've pointed out on this list many times, even the FSF, as an
organization, tries to keep some of its IP proprietary in reality if not in
name.  When RMS asked me not to enhance and republish the FSF manuals, *even
if I gave all the changes back to the FSF under the GPL*, on the grounds
that it would damage the FSF's revenue stream from printing its
documentation, I say he made the same choice that lots of free software
entrepreneurs have made, namely to give himself an inside advantage.

So if it's not a matter of being absolute, where do you draw the line?  I
think that you draw the softer line than many on the list, around a set of
shared ideals and practices.  Just as you can call yourself an
environmentalist while still driving a car, what makes a business a free
software business, to my mind, is a commitment to the ideal of reciprocity
and generosity.  

I have no problem with a company making a strategic decision to keep some of
the fruits of its intellectual labor for its own advantage.  *I just want
companies not to keep _all_ of those fruits.*  I believe an FSB is one that
asks itself the question about its software IP: "do I need to keep this
proprietary, or do I (and others) get more if I share it?" and answers the
second question in the affirmative some reasonable proportion of the time.

Because I believe that F/OSS software has strategic advantages, I want
companies to give their software away in the cases where they realize that
doing so is good for them.  Not because someone else tells them "hey, do it
because it would be good for me".*

My precise point about folks like google and amazon is that they rely a
great deal on free software, and their strategic calculus *should* conclude
that they need to keep the virtuous circle going.  I think like an
environmentalist, telling people, "you have an obligation to recycle and
conserve, and here's why."  And I've identified certain companies as
targets.  I target the worst polluters (those who actually try to block off
the commons, or who take a lot but give nothing back) but I also target
those who are closest to the line, who can be most easily persuaded to cross
over it and do something good for our shared software environment.

* In some ways, I think that the difference between the free software and
the open source ideology boils down to this.  Open source says "give away
your software because doing so will be good for you."  Free software says,
"give away your software because doing so will be good for me."  Another way
of saying it is that open source focuses on the benefit to the creator of
the software, while free software focuses on the benefit to the user of the
software, whether that's good for the creator or not.

That's a bit harsh as a characterization, but the "moral" position of the
FSF has always seemed to me to be rooted in a philosophy of expropriation,
and a willingness to try to take software against the will of its creators,
and to shame and blame people when they don't want to comply, whereas open
source says "do it because it works and you'll get good results if you
Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
1005 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, CA 95472