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Getting it wrong on Amazon's charitable donations

Amazon shouldn't be measured on its giving to charity, just as corporations shouldn't be judged on their open-source contributions.

Slate's Paul Collins on Friday took Amazon.com to task for not being more generous in its charitable giving. "While Amazon.com is famously cheap in its prices, it's also become infamously cheap to the community it lives in," writes Collins. The criticism,while clever, misses the mark, much as deprecations of corporations for not contributing more open-source code largely miss the mark.

Why? Because a company should not be measured by its charity, but rather by how well it delivers returns to shareholders. A company is set up to generate profits, not alms.

This distinction is critical, and it's one that I haven't always followed in my own estimations of corporate open-source contributions. Take, for example, my criticism of Google and Yahoo for not contributing more to open source.

As it turns out, Google and Yahoo have started to aggressively contribute to a wide array of open-source communities, but not out of charity. Google loves open source because open source helps to speed its own development, but also because open source helps to get more people online (and, hence, clicking Google-served advertisements) faster and at lower cost. Supporting open source is therefore a rational, calculated act for Google.

But not all open source. You won't see Google contributing to OpenX, the open-source ad server, any time soon. OpenX competes with Google, after all, and Google is not in any way required to contribute to its own demise.

Or take IBM. IBM is the classic example of a company that does well for itself by doing well for open source. IBM doesn't contribute to Apache, Linux, and other open-source projects because it's a corporate incarnation of Santa Claus. It actively contributes to open source because open source actively contributes to IBM.

In like manner, if we want Microsoft to join the open-source community more fully, the best strategy will be to appeal to its self-interest, not guilt. Microsoft's self-interest demands that it compete with Linux, but it may equally suggest that it contribute actively to Lucene for open-source search, OpenX for open-source ad-serving, or any number of other projects that may hurt competitors and, therefore, help Microsoft.

Corporations like Amazon have long contributed to charities to burnish their images in their communities, for preferential tax treatment, and for other benefits. Open-source contributions are equally self-interested, but arguably open-source contributions serve much wider communities, and to greater effect, even despite their self-interested motives.

Our job, therefore, is not to castigate corporations into contributing to open-source projects, just as Slate's attack on Amazon does little for charity, but rather to demonstrate the value in "selfish" open-source giving.

In other words, we should focus on correlating contributions to corporate benefits. As companies--vendors and customers alike--come to perceive the benefits they can derive from open-source contributions, we should see a flowering of such contributions.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.