The gift of it's your problem now

Haven’t seen this here yet

Apenwarr - The gift of it’s your problem now

It covers a lot of ground but I’d like to highlight a biting critique of my own (and some others’ here) positions re: “why not just charge money though”

When you try to pay for gifts, it turns the whole gift process into a transaction. It stops being a gift. It becomes an inefficient, misdesigned, awkward market.
…So it is with free software. You literally cannot pay for it. If you do, it becomes something else.

I suspect that, to a first approximation, one big reason indie open source models lack adoption is we don’t have off-the-shelf answers that interact with this sort of concern. There is, I believe, a wide population of FOSS folks who think thoughts “like this” and the market-based explanations are unsatisfactory to them.

-_- I don’t like objectivism or Ayn Rand, but this might be one of those instances where her critique of altruism and promotion of selfishness might have been spot on.

The FOSS world is gifting itself into decadence…
Way to go, guys…

The answer to “open source is a pure gift!” is “you didn’t really look into this, did you?”.

It’s easy to declare open source a big, selfless, code giveaway when you stop at “I got code and didn’t have to pay for it”, because that’s all you want to see. Same for open source as charity, philanthropy, or unalloyed humanitarianism. Have a look from the other side. As a start, look at how many of these “gifts” are overt loss leaders, complementary goods, marketing tools, strategic plays, and the like, funded by tech companies and foundations funded by tech companies.

I’ve made a point of engaging several people who take this line on the parallel topic of open source developer motivation. Each time, I got a bunch of totally coherent sounding answers…that directly contradict selfless gift giving. They do it for fame. They do it for experience. They do it out of pride. They’re compulsive code addicts. It’s literally part of their paid job.

Linus (co)wrote a book about how Linux was “just for fun”. The LF paid him more than $1.6m in comp for 2018, by their estimate. Justified? Very arguably. Is Linus gifting us ongoing kernel maintenance? Hardly.

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Took the time to read through the post.

The worn retelling of the FSF/Stallman/printer fable and the excursion on communism-capitalism-authoritarianism aside, I think I understand where the author may be coming from. I’d group them very much with DHH and other writers who feel a strong need to separate FOSS from not-FOSS, to make it an exceptional, remote, and in some sense “pure” refuge from and foil to humdrum reality. I also put Yochai Benkler in that group.

Two common symptoms.

First, there’s the very rigid, binary, either-or relationship with any other approach to software:

When you try to pay for gifts, it turns the whole gift process into a transaction.

By this logic, all the projects offered as loss-leaders, marketing projects, and strategic market distortions—which the author is evidently aware of—aren’t gifts anymore. They’re transactions. I wonder if they’d also try to class free services exchanged for data, like Facebook and Twitter, as gifts? If not, what tiny part of online software or online software services actually counts as gifty Free Software?

Second, unsupported leaps in the area of psychology:

There’s research showing that, for example, financial compensation in a job is more likely a demotivator than a motivator (ie. if you pay me too little, I’ll work less hard or quit, but if you double my pay, it won’t double my output).

That generality does not follow from the specific studies, or the author’s summary of them in parenthetical. It’s also highly selective, skipping all the evidence we have on responsiveness to financial incentives, piecework, and the like. Similarly:

Ruin the giftiness, and you ruin the intangible rewards.

That might be a valid personal statement, but it clearly doesn’t hold for all. Is it really impossible to enjoy paid work through felt, intangible benefits? Do we simply not believe people who say they love their paying jobs?

So it is with free software. You literally cannot pay for it.

You most certainly can. And not just back in the day, for copies on physical media.

I react somewhat viscerally to this point of view, because it denies mine. There’s nothing unavoidably cut-throat, interpersonally barren, or theologically fallen about exchanging money, assets, or business benefits. Especially when exchange is fair.

I had great relationships with paying customers as a programmer. And I have relationships with folks I pay now that involve more than just a combative, arms-length exchange of $x for y. Those relationships happily and naturally inhabit continua. I don’t see or feel any reason to paint them pure black, as opposed to the pure white of “gift” or “open” or “community” experiences, to avoid having grey in my world.

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I do not believe a functioning community of any size is possible in which gifts go unreciprocated. This might seem controversial, because we see all kings of transactions that on the surface look like one-directional flow of benefits, for example volunteering or charity. Humans however have a hierarchy of needs and the needs of different individuals fall into different places in the hierarchy. From this perspective, even seemingly one-directional transfers are in fact reciprocated, because the benefits flow in the opposite directions, albeit they do so on different levels in the hierarchy. In such transfers both parties’ needs are addressed and therefore valuable to them. Unfortunately, only the flows addressing lower level needs are usually observed and acknowledged and this not only by persons, but also in major economic models, resulting in situations where these can’t provide sufficient explanation for phenomena like volunteering.

Regarding the question of monetary payment boosting, or diminishing motivation to supply labor, a number of studies show, that monetary payments can have all kinds of effects, depending on factors, like the perceived level of autonomy, or the kind and amount of “merit” signal a work reward carries. The devil is in the way a reward mechanism is constructed and that determines behavior of the economic actors.

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“Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivations” is specific terminology for some of what has been discussed in the article and here.

Which as commenters here have noted, despite there being antagonistic conflicts between the two, they aren’t mutually exclusive, and can compliment each other.

Furthermore, receiving extrinsic rewards for something you do for intrinsic motivation, need not be confused with extrinsic motivation. For instance, many churches request tithe not for the point of tithe, but for what they can do with it according to the shared intrinsic motivations, which members may give for intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. An employer may hire an employee purely for the extrinsic qualities the employee produces, and the employee is only motivated by the extrinsic carrot of the work, not the work itself. Some people may be motivated by the work and by the payment, some people may be motivated by the work and not the payment, some people may be motivated by the payment and not the work, irrespective to whether the work or payments are being exchanged. Some for type of intrinsic vs extrinsic exchanges and motivations can occur in intimate relationships, and the various styles of those.

To put it explicitly, intrinsic and extrinsic exchanges (what occurred), are not to be confused with intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (why it occurs).

That said, the terminology became very popular in early TED talks days, and seems a bit wishy washy now that I think about it. As it seems with enough coaching anything could be reframed as the other category.


Nearly… the reason why indie open source models lack adoption is very simple. They only appeal to a very limited set of circumstances.

The models are constrained by the motivations of the developers, which may or may not be to make money… generally they will only appeal to a tiny minority of developers that reject both the mercenary (maximal profit) approach and the ‘just for the love of it’ (costless) approach and instead have some vague idea of being fair.

This approach is an unsatisfactory compromise. Trying to be fair when faced with such economic asymmetry in the industry is waving a white flag. Who was it who said something like - being neutral in the face of oppression is like joining the oppressor? I dunno - maybe a Bishop Tutu or someone maybe? Anyway… so it is with all the indie models I’ve seen so far… platform cooperativism… fair licensing and so on and so forth.

The other main factor is the motivations of users, which 99% of the time is: “will it cost me anything to use it?”.

Combined, these two main motivations: developer and user, explain what we see, the predominance of permissive licensing over restrictions, lack of adoption of indie models, shaming license proliferators as if we are in the same moral category as sex offenders or something. What’s funny is industry talking heads use the sciencey language of ‘standardization’ and ‘compatibility’ which is just jargon for enabling significant control and influence of working practices and distribution of benefits in favor of the biggest and most aggressive corporations.

motivations for participating in open-source projects proved to be more complex than expected. While internal factors, such as intrinsic motivation, altruism, and identification with a community, played an important role, so did external factors, such as direct compensation and anticipated return. Factors that promised future monetary rewards, such as building human capital and self-marketing, were also more significant than expected. Personal need for a software solution was another key factor that has not yet received sufficient attention. The survey found that the developers who participated in open-source projects fell into several groups. Hobbyists and students were the most internally motivated. Salaried and contract programmers, in contrast, hoped to sell related products and services. A surprisingly large number of developers were paid for their open-source efforts. They were the ones most concerned with self-marketing and fulfilling their personal software needs. In light of these findings, it is evident that the open-source movement can draw from a diverse set of motivations, many of them based on external rewards.

Alexander Hars and Shaosong Ou, ‘Working for Free? Motivations for Participating in Open-Source Projects’, International Journal of Electronic Commerce, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 25–39, Apr. 2002, doi: 10.1080/10864415.2002.11044241.

That’s a pessimistic take. Correct perhaps for some mass market end users of an app. Where even the word “app” is incorrect. End users may see a website as an app and ask whether signing up has a subscription fee.

Less correct for many other types of users. Is it maintained? Do I care about the organization that maintains it? I don’t have time to contribute directly — can I contribute resources in some other way? Will it go away in 1 year? In 10 years? Can I export the data l? Can other entities run it for me? Is it security reviewed?

One can see many different individuals and organizations having different concerns and selection criteria.

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‘Pessimism’ implies there is an unreliable, subjective interpretation going on somewhere here. I don’t think that is fair. Just stand back and take a look at the internet from where you are, or in fact from where anyone else is and you will find that costless access to content is what is driving everything. The other motivations you listed are not contrary to the most literal interpretation of costs you uncharitably stuck on me. Cost is not just market price. You are right, people make evaluations based on other things that also have costs… which is the cost of maintaining it themselves, or paying someone else, the risk of the tech being abandoned has a potential migration cost, licensing costs and so forth… the examples you gave are arguments in favor of cost (widely conceived) being the primary motivator, not in favor of a contrary argument AFAICT. This is not pessimism, it’s how the world works, no?