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4. In the Interim - Your Fair Share

If you have benefited from using Linux or other freely produced software, it is entirely fair to expect that you return back Your Fair Share to help improve future releases.

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. You may be able to get a copy of Linux or other free software without paying anything for it; this does not mean that the software was produced "for free." Those that don't contribute something back represent "freeloaders" that are not helpful to the community. In order for free software to remain viable, there will need to be a continuing investment of considerable efforts and funds on the part of developers and users.

Contributions might reasonably be given in a wide variety of forms, notably including the following:

I think it not unreasonable to expect people to contribute some sort of "Fair Share" in some fashion in various of these areas.

I have listed the above items roughly in order of how easy it is to clearly establish the usefulness of contributions.

It should be obvious that the most direct way of contributing something useful to free software is to write more free software. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same degree of ability to contribute in this fashion.

At the other end of the spectrum is the notion of financial grants. Money has the potential to be useful, if correctly deployed. Unfortunately, the task of correctly deploying it may be difficult to get right.

4.1. Build Needed Software

It's pretty obvious that code doesn't simply "get written." There need to be authors of new software.

Eric Raymond's article, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes the widely cited "Linux Bazaar Approach" to software development.

It can be simply characterized with three principles:

The Linux kernel typically has a more-or-less weekly release, whether it's ready or not. It has accepted patches from thousands of people. This huge body of participants has become a tremendous strength.

With a growing world population of Linux users, expanding that strength to encompass other system components such as compilers, libraries, utilities, applications, and even documentation allows us to harness the "smarts" of potentially millions of developers of one variety or another.

Ten thousand developers looking at the kernel is quite enough to keep it improving even if most individually only examine small portions of the code in their spare time.

Coordinating efforts in the wake of there being literally millions of participants requires a truly distributed approach. "The Bazaar" has proved to be a potent approach for software development.

The difficult thing that needs to happen is for there to be some compromises in the interests of unity.

4.2. Providing Information/Linux Support

If you aren't a "software developer," it may be reasonable to contribute to general as well as specific support efforts. Here's a few ideas:

4.3. Financial Grants

With the multiple millions of Linux users, it would be entirely plausible for grateful users to individually contribute a little.

That has the potential to add up to hundreds of millions of dollars towards development of improved tools.

That being said, getting funds to developers and other worthy recipients may realistically represent something much like the old story about Belling the Cat. At this time there isn't any single "Linux Software Foundation" to which we can expect to see such contributions go. And I do not believe that the present organizations are at all prepared to appropriately deploy millions of dollars.

There are, nonetheless, a number of possible routes for Linux users to take to make financial contributions to efforts to improve Linux, and I would suggest that people consider contributing to them.

Having a single "umbrella" organization ("Linux Development Foundation") would have some value as a focal point, but is not necessary. It may be useful for individuals for there to be a way of turning contributions into tax deductible expenditures, so as to maximize the value of those contributions. I can contribute more money "pre-tax" than I can "post-tax." On the flip side, this is really only beneficial when paying for material, equipment and services. The tax deductible contribution will have taxes deducted from it before it gets paid to a developer...

I have contributed to some of the following organizations and not to others. Inclusion in the list doesn't mean that I agree with all their aims, merely that they have some reasonable relevance to Linux and free software and that they appear to me to be worth considering.

Tip

Note that many of these organizations are also able to use contributions that come in the forms of computer hardware and services.

4.3.1. How Much Should I Contribute?

There is no unambiguously correct answer to this question. I would suggest asking yourself the question: "How much would you have paid for commercial versions of the software?"

  • Installing Linux instead of NT Server "saves" you on the $1000 USD, and I have seen estimates of as much as $5000. If the millions of Linux users contributed $1000 (or its equivalent) to Linux development efforts, that would literally provide billions of dollars of funding to help improve Linux. These figures sound rather high, and this sort of spending is unlikely particularly for home systems, but this kind of contribution is not preposterous for someone installing Linux in a commercial environment.

  • $100 resembles pricing for "PC" operating systems like Windows 95, and still represents potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. If, instead of spending the several hundred dollars per year on commercial software that is probably typical for PC users, Linux users contribute similar funds directly to software development efforts, that still points a remarkable amount of money and effort at software development.

  • Yet another more extreme evaluation of the value of Linux would be to consider the value of other peoples' investments in Linux.

    There are an ample number of people that have invested time worth conservatively thousands of dollars in developments related to the Linux kernel, utilities, applications. and documentation.

    That is indeed a tough act to follow; those that have invested less have certainly not established that they have comparable moral authority to determine the direction of Linux developments...

    I do not realistically suggest that people invest thousands of dollars. However, people who have not done so, or done something of similar value, have little right to demand much of anything of those who have invested substantial amounts...

I would argue that $100 per year is a pretty "fair share" for a home user of Linux. Some people (particularly students) honestly can't afford that, which is fair enough. I would still urge having some financial participation, however nominal. Contributions that come in the form of services are valuable and are also highly necessary; combining the various kinds of contributions strengthens the community.

4.3.2. But Be Careful...

Just because someone claims that they have a neat project that needs to be funded does not mean that it is deserving of funding.

(Decreasingly) recently, the fund.opensource.org proposal came along, with a group proposing to be a "clearing house" for donated funds to be used to sponsor "Open Source" projects. It apparently did not happen with the concurrence of those that run the opensource.org domain, and the model was somewhat like the commission-based way many organizations have used to raise funds, with the typical effect that some small percentage of the contributions actually make it to the intended destination.

Before giving money to an organization where you do not know and directly trust the principal participants, make sure that the organization is officially recognized as a "charitable organization" by some comparatively reputable organization, such as the local taxation authorities.

This indicates some limits on the degree to which contributions can be used to line the pockets of the organizers, and suggests some degree of organization stability.

Consider: If they can't convince the government that they're charitable, why should you believe them?

An web site that presents valuable information concerning this sort of thing is the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. This organization grew up in response to the problems encountered in the Christian community surrounding the "televangelists" that have been more than a little cavalier in their use of donated funds, and given Christian charities a bad reputation. They suggest a set of principles of financial accountability that are fairly appropriate for any sort of organization that receives donations. The principles are largely not religious or spiritual in nature.

4.4. Hardware-Related Development

Most efforts relating to hardware support have resulted from the need to build driver software to support hardware designs of one variety or another.

The more controversial efforts have related to doing sufficient "reverse-engineering" so as to permit writing drivers for hardware for which the creators were unwilling to provide sufficient documentation to allow its use.

There has not, in contrast, been a whole lot of hardware designed and deployed with the specific intent of it being usable with free operating systems.

It seems to me that it would be particularly interesting to have a computer system designed specifically for use with Linux or other free OSes, with particular focus on the critical components of CPU and motherboard.

The F-CPU project is working to establish "free" 64 bit CPU design intended to be competitive in performance with Intel's "Merced," with Linux as the initially targeted OS.

My knowledge of electronic circuit design is minimal, so I cannot evaluate how credible that project's plans are, and have no ability to contribute to the design process; I would nonetheless see great value in there being a hardware architecture with the distributed control generally associated with the free software community.

Their plans involve a truly shoestring-like budget. It is not clear that funding would be, at this stage, of any great value.

But if and when they get to the point of being able to deploy the hardware, funds would clearly be necessary to pay for the production runs needed to produce chips and motherboards in sufficient quantities to permit economies of scale.

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Contact me at cbbrowne@acm.org