We All Want a Pony!

Alan MacCormack published a new paper entitled A Developer Bill of Rights: What Open Source Developers Want in a Software License for the AEI-Brookings Joint Center. Whenever I see a statement of developer desiderata, I'm reminded of Chris Blizzard's observation: "No, you can't have a pony."

People in Chapel Hill want lower taxes and better schools.

People in North Carolina want economic development and a cleaner environment.

The US Government wants cheap labor and strong borders.

Software lobbying groups want to protect innovation while supporting the ridiculous notion of software patents.

And open source software developers want strong guarantees of freedom without imposing their views on others.

I have been reviewing and participating in the development of local, state, national, and international policy documents on a wide range of subject (not limited to open source software), and one thing that experience has taught me is that a lot of people want a lot of things. And a lot of those things people say they want are fundamentally inconsistent, pony or no pony.

Jared Diamond looks in detail at the consequences of those inconsistencies in his book Collapse. Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini offers a similar perspective in their writings entitled "Slow Food Nation" (her article his book). In both cases it is clear that when the equations do not balance, the imbalance leads to disaster.

I am very sympathetic to the libertarian leanings of many open source developers who want to be free in a way which does not constrain the freedoms of others. But we do not live in a virtual world, where we can choose the boundaries and limits of our own interactions with others. We live in a real world where freedoms and choices do collide and conflict. Alan's report does strike me as accurate in gaining a sense of the community, but it is not an actionable sense. It is not a practical sense. It represents the kind of dangerous fantasy that leads to collapse.

I see a growing parallel between the growing understanding and acceptance of the open source development model and the growing understanding and alarm concerning the threat of global warming. The strong scientific consensus is that global warming is a direct consequence of a set of behaviors focused on meeting one set of desires without regard for the consequences of those behaviors. Selfish social behavior, acted out on a global scale with industrial efficiency, is not only consuming earth's resources at the rate of 1.2 earths per earth, but it is emitting pollutants that will force the displacement of more than 1 billion people in the next 50-100 years. And while nothing, yet, has changed in the behavior of the major actors in this situation, attitudes are beginning to change, as evidenced by a joint statement issued by 50 major CEOs to the US Congress in March of this year. Similarly, the GPLv3, which seemed radical a year ago, now seems far more reasonable as promoting the necessary protections of the very freedoms that developers claim is so dear to them. Of course these developers don't want to impose their beliefs on others--how anti-libertarian, how anti-freedom, how anti-choice! However, the consequences of not protecting those freedoms makes the developer, their project, and the community susceptible to insideous destruction by forces that have shown no similar respect for the freedoms and choices of others.

So, thank you Alan, for at least showing that Open Source developers are as human as anybody else. We all, secretly, want a pony. And, for your next paper, you might want to analyze how those expressed needs are best met in the real world. You might be surprised to discover that the very thing people say they like least is the only thing that protects what they value most.


The survey received only 34 responses. That may seem reasonable if one thinks of the lead developers for major GPLv2 projects. But in fact it was targeting midlevel FOSS developers (who may or may not use GPLv2). From that light, it is actually a laughably small sample size. Moroever, the response rate was so low (11%) that I suspect there was significant response bias (i.e. who responded affected the outcome of the survey). Perhaps they disclosed that Microsoft was funding the study.

I also find several statements in the report dishonest. For instance, it says most developers like "Open Source Initiative’s open source definition, which focuses on allowing users to extend open source creations, but avoids mandating users strictly adhere to the philosophies of upstream developers" Of course, the free software definition does not mandate copyleft either. They exaggerate the "viral" nature of the GPL by falsely claiming it "forces any code distributed along side GPL code to become governed by the GPL license".

Most objectionable is the deceptive argument that the GPL inhibits independent developers' choice. It says, "The majority of developers do not support any organization imposing their views upon other developers"; the implicit argument is that the GPL's popularity means it is unfairly forcing its ideology on others. Of course, no one has to use the GPL (2 or 3). The license is popular (and I believe GPLv3 will be as well) because people have voted with their feet. It is always chosen voluntarily, either because the developers support its goals, or because they want access to the overall GPL commons.

But the GPL is far from the only license, and thus it doesn't dictate absolutely to any independent developer. There are a broad spectrum of alternative licenses, some supported by OSI and/or the FSF, and some not. The FSF has invited public commentary on GPLv3 because they understand that input will help make the license more clear and useful. If the result is still objectionable to someone, it is mostly likely because of fundamental philosophical differences. The FSF's philosophy is not, and should not be set to "reflect the needs of the broader software community." That is simply not a pony we can afford to give away.

I agree with Matt. This study is irrelevant and deceptive. HBS should be embarassed. At a minimum, they have failed to explain why the GPL is chosen by over 70% of the projects on SourceForge. They are also misleading on the process for developing GPLv3 which included two committees focused on developers as well as an open comment format.

The purpose of my posting was to give Alan the full benefit of the doubt and just look at the responses he did receive. But the more I thought about it, and the more I researched his research, the more clear it became to me that this HBS report is suffering a severe case of premature publication. The best debunking I have seen so far is this article published at vunet. It is disappointing to me that HBS (with the MIT Sloan school) had done such a good job of researching and publishing open source research prior to receiving such sponsorship from Microsoft. Hopefully they and the community will both be far more aware of both the expected standards of scholarly work and the perils of accepting corporate sponsorship.