Open source: returning dignity to the developer

Not too sound too Marxist, but software has lost sight of the value of the developers who write it. Open source is a way to return primacy to producers.

I was watching the BBC's production of Elizabeth Gaskell's wonderful North and South on my flight home from London today. What a powerful production! One of my favorite lines from the movie (and book) comes at the end of the first segment. Margaret Hale, the protagonist, reflecting on the working conditions in England's northern cotton factories (textile mills) says,

I have seen Hell. And it is white. Snow white.
The cotton trade enslaved workers to an almost bestial existence in Gaskell's time, though her words also reflect the factory owners' servile dependence on the same labor.

I can't help but think of how much better working conditions have become in the "developed world." Those of us who live here are very fortunate.

In a small way, I'm impressed by how open source returns power and dignity to the developers who write software. Many work for companies and assign copyright to those corporations, and for good reason. But it's impressive, I think, that we rightly recognize individuals within the open source community. No one contributes to Apache as an IBM employee, even though IBM employs many Apache contributors. No one writes the Linux kernel as a Red Hat employee, either, though Red Hat employees do a far greater percentage of development on the Linux kernel than does any other corporation.

And yet they stand or fall on their individual coding merits, not on their corporate laurels. I don't want to wax Marxist here (being a very devout capitalist), but I like to think that open source improves the lot of developers. Not that developers are in the habit of starving - the pizza truck is generally just a call away. In open source, it's not a question of life or death, but rather a question of personal dignity. Open source gives back respect to the individuals that write software.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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