Open Source and Squeegee Men
Originally published at https://24daysindecember.net/2018/12/11/open-source-and-squeegee-men/.
It is the Christmas season, and Christmas is a time for giving gifts: to family, to friends, and to colleagues. Some even give gifts to strangers they may never meet, as an expression of charity or of generosity, or in thankfulness for their own abundance.
Does the recipient of a gift owe the giver anything in return? Some might think the answer is “no” — it was a gift, after all. Others might think that the recipient now owes the giver a gift of their own, perhaps one of comparable value — but if the giver expects a gift in return, doesn’t that take away from the generous nature of the gift, making it more like a business transaction?
I would say that both responses are close to the truth. When someone receives a gift, they do well to return something to the giver … but the return is not primarily a material one. The recipient does the right thing to compensate the giver, not first with money or merchandise, but most importantly with gratitude and good will.
Granted a sense of appreciation, then, sometimes a further expression of that thankfulness is a gift in return. But note that it does not come from a sense of obligation or indebtedness “for services rendered.” We may exchange gifts, but we do not pay for having received them. To pay for something in that way is not to have received a gift; it is to have made a purchase.
I think open source software is a little like the giving and receiving of gifts.
To be clear, I don’t mean the production of open source software. The actual work of developing a program, with others, is not a series of gifts being exchanged. It is a cooperative/competitive activity with its own implicit order of criticism and acceptance.
But the open source software product itself, when presented, is a little like offering a gift to strangers. When you publish your work, you don’t know in advance who will find it useful, or even if anyone will find it useful at all. And yet, when someone does accept your offering, you get that good feeling of having been helpful.
In accepting an offer of free software, as with any gift, the recipient does best to regard the giver with gratitude and good will. That is to say, the user of open source software should have an internal feeling of appreciation for the gift they have been given.
If that appreciation is expressed in some outward and visible manner, so much the better. But that expression cannot be required by the giver of the open source gift. Really, it cannot even be an expectation on their part.
What would we think of someone who, on offering what appeared to be a gift, immediately demanded a gift (typically money) in return? And then harbored resentment and ill-will for not receiving one? I think it would be fair to call such a person disingenuous at best; a swindler or a con-man at worst. It’s like the squeegee-man scam: someone runs up to your car at a stoplight, sprays and wipes down your windshield to clean it, starts yelling at you to pay them back for having served you, and finally (if you drive away) curses at you.
A person who offers a gift, then demands a gift in return, is attempting a sort of emotional jiujitsu to turn your own good will against you. Having received a gift, you may feel the giver’s demand is somehow justified; is it not the normal expectation to exchange gifts? And yet the initial act was not that of giving a gift: it was more like priming a pump, so that you would feel guilty, and then pay in cash to soothe your own self-imposed guilt.
Of course, the proper emotional reaction to the squeegee man should be indignation, not guilt, followed by refusal to concede anything to a “gift-giver” who expects money as payment in return.
As such, if you present your open source offering as a gift, you can have no expectation of anything in return. You cannot expect that anyone will use it; that anyone else will write the documentation for it; that anyone will write up issues or pull requests; that anyone will give you money for it. You can hope for these things, but to expect them (especially money!) is to be like the squeegee scammer. You gave a gift of your own volition; you have no cause to be resentful if people don’t offer you money for it.
Then comes the question, “Don’t I deserve to get paid for my work?” Certainly you do. But you don’t “deserve” to get “paid” for your gifts. It may be true that one good turn deserves another, but if anything, it is to be in kind, not in cash. If someone opens a door for you, you don’t tip them; you open a door for them in return.
The open-source “in kind” equivalent is Github stars, fair reviews, issues and PRs, and other work — given as a gift! — on your offering. Or recognition, or being cited as an ispiration. Or it might be new software offered as a gift to new strangers, that you never know about. (That is part of what prompts my own open source work; having received these gifts, I find it fulfilling to offer gifts of my own.)
Is it appropriate to mention the kinds of gifts you might like in return? Of course! Everyone who has ever made a Christmas list knows how that works. Set up a Patreon account, point out your Amazon buy-through link, suggest a donation. But I caution against “advertising” it anywhere other than on the project page itself; going out and announcing in public that you accept gifts is a little too much like panhandling.
It’s normal to want to get paid for doing something you love doing anyway. It’s just not an appropriate expectation when you are giving strangers a gift. Now, it is true that getting money for open source software does happen from time to time, but it is unusual — more often, payment is tied to services around the software, not to the software itself. So if you prefer to get paid for your programming efforts, that’s fine: state the terms of exchange, then (and this is key) do not deliver the software unless those terms are met. Generally speaking, we call this “employment” or “sales” or “business,” not “gift-giving.”
Giving a gift in return may sometimes be good manners, but expecting a gift in return is bad manners. Likewise, it is bad manners to be a scold or a busybody, demanding that others pay money for gifts freely given. And if you feel that others are being “exploited” somehow for giving out gifts, the remedy is not to encourage them to begin demanding payment like the squeegee-man. Instead, consider suggesting that perhaps they should not be giving out gifts when they cannot afford to do so.
So don’t be the squeegee-man. If you want to get paid for your work, great! Ask for your money up front. If what you want is to give a gift, that’s great too — and if money unexpectedly flows your way, be grateful.
Postscript: these are some of the links that informed this essay.