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Art and profit in open source

Joe Brockmeier wondered aloud in a recent post to his blog whether open source really needs a business plan. As he states: This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?

Joe Brockmeier wondered aloud in a recent post to his blog whether open source really needs a business plan. As he states:

This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?" or "what is the business plan for modern art?" Open source projects may need business plans, companies that utilize open source certainly do — but the concept of open source itself does not.

I see where he's coming from. I argued in a blog post a few weeks back that programming is an "art" on par with painting, story writing and filmmaking. All masters of their craft see the beauty in well-crafted instances of it, and that applies as much to people messing around with colored goo as people playing with circuit boards or writing code using a development tool.

On the other hand, there IS something different about the "art of programming" than, say, the "art of punk rock." Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys can play his music and find that most people will at least understand the concept of music, even if they aren't fans of punk rock. That's not the case with programming.

Programming bears a certain facile similarity to writing, so to make an analogy that will appeal to true geeks, programming is like writing poetry in Klingon. Most people don't understand Klingon, and wouldn't understand the rules of poetry in that language. Therefore, unless you have a rather generous trust fund, you better find a way to monetize that hobby, otherwise it will never move beyond the level of harmless distraction.

Programmers don't have the luxury of practicing an art that is generally comprehensible to the wider population. Therefore, in order for us to do it all the time, we have to find a way to monetize our craft. There are all sorts of ways to do that, but money must be closer to front and center in the minds of programmers than it is for Mr. Biafra, or a performance artist on New York's East Side who at least has a chance that people will understand what in the heck he's doing.

That's not entirely a bad thing, as another point I like to make is the amazing power that financial incentives have to turn "hobbyist" technology into something that changes the world. The Internet wouldn't be the global, all-encompassing networking technology it is today if not for the innovation and capital that businesses applied to its growth. Linux has experienced the same virtuous cycle, as the patronage of IBM, the marketing power of Linux distribution companies and the backing of corporations has turned what started as a "hobbyist" operating system into the point of coalescence for the Unix world.

So, to conclude, open source doesn't need a business plan and money shouldn't be allowed to cloud the pursuit of one's art, but that doesn't mean money is the great corrupter that will spell the end of open source as we know it. In fact, money and the pursuit of it might just be what turned open source into the force it is today.