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Linux Creator is Pro-Galt: ‘Open Source Is About Being Selfish, Not About Getting Everybody to Serve Some Common Good’

June 13, 2012

The creator of the most popular open source operating system, Linux, has categorically blasted one of the most pernicious myths

Linus Torvalds is pro-Galt...

Linus Torvalds is pro-Galt…

about ‘free and open source software (FOSS)– that it’s all about getting people to contribute to ‘the common good’, ‘self-sacrifice or the need to serve the welfare of others first.

In his BBC interview, open-source software development leader and ‘king of geeks’ Linus Torvalds talks about the virtue of ‘selfishness’, which he describes as ‘the real idea’ about open source. With his unapologetic praise for selfishness, Torvalds is in effect channeling Ayn Rand.

Asked why does he  think people have been willing to give up so much time without financial reward, Torvalds gave the following answer:

In many ways, I actually think the real idea of open source is for it to allow everybody to be “selfish”, not about trying to get everybody to contribute to some common good.

In other words, I do not see open source as some big goody-goody “let’s all sing kumbaya around the campfire and make the world a better place”. No, open source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons.

Now, those selfish reasons by no means need to be about “financial reward”, though.

Of course, not everybody, including most so-called tech writers or computer journalists, understand that the open source business is all about one’s ‘selfish’ gains or motives. The system allows budding and potential developers to gain more technical knowledge and to acquire more skills they need to achieve their ultimate goal: financial and technical success.

This reminds me of a dishonest article published four years ago. In her online article titled John Galt is dead or Linus shrugs, Dana Blakenhorn described Linus as the “anti-Galt”, “shy”, somehow who “likes teams”, and “is more interested in solving a problem than in anything else.” It’s as if John Galt, one of the main protagonists of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, doesn’t like teams or is not interested in solving problems.

To people who read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus and who understand her philosophy, John Galt is the epitome of ‘rational selfishness’. The following line sums up Galt’s beliefs or philosophy in life: “I will not sacrifice myself for others, nor ask another to sacrifice himself for me.”

So, was Ms. Blakenhorn trying to argue that Linus was for self-sacrifice or the common good? That he and his team invented and improved Linux in order to serve people’s ‘common good’? In the first place, I don’t think she read a single page of Atlas Shrugged.

In fact, Linus’s BBC interview reveals one thing: that’s he’s pro-Galt, not anti-Galt. It shows  that he clearly understands the concept and virtue of selfishness and he’s rationally acting on it.

Here’s an excerpt of his BBC interview:

Linus: “The early “selfish” reasons to do Linux tended to be centred about just the pleasure of tinkering. That was why I did it – programming was my hobby – passion, really – and learning how to control the hardware was my own selfish goal. And it turned out that I was not all that alone in that.

“Big universities with computer science departments had people who were interested in the same kinds of things.

“And most people like that may not be crazy enough to start writing their own operating system from scratch, but there were certainly people around who found this kind of tinkering with hardware interesting, and who were interested enough to start playing around with the system and making suggestions on improvements, and eventually even making those improvements themselves and sending them back to me.

“And the copyright protected those kinds of people. If you’re a person who is interested in operating systems, and you see this project that does this, you don’t want to get involved if you feel like your contributions would be somehow “taken advantage of”, but with the GPLv2 [licence], that simply was never an issue.

“The fundamental property of the GPLv2 is a very simple “tit-for-tat” model: I’ll give you my improvements, if you promise to give your improvements back.

“It’s a fundamentally fair licence, and you don’t have to worry about somebody else then coming along and taking advantage of your work.

“And the thing that then seemed to surprise people, is that that notion of “fairness” actually scales very well.

“Sure, a lot of companies were initially fairly leery about a licence that they weren’t all that used to, and sometimes doubly so because some portions of the free software camp had been very vocally anti-commercial and expected companies to overnight turn everything into free software.

“But really, the whole “tit-for-tat” model isn’t just fair on an individual scale, it’s fair on a company scale, and it’s fair on a global scale.

“Once people and companies got over their hang-ups – renaming it “open source” and just making it clear that this was not some kind of anti-commercial endeavour definitely helped – things just kind of exploded.

“And the thing is, if your competition doesn’t put in the same kind of effort that you do, then they can’t reap the same kinds of rewards you can: if they don’t contribute, they don’t get to control the direction of the project, and they won’t have the same kind of knowledge and understanding of it that you do.

“So there really are big advantages to being actively involved – you can’t just coast along on somebody else’s work.”

Torvalds was of course recognized and awarded for his contribution, as he bagged home Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize. The Linux creator will share the prize and a check of $1.3 million with Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka.

“Linus Torvalds’s work has kept the web open for the pursuit of knowledge and for the benefit of humanity – not simply for financial interests,” Ainomaija Haarla, President of Technology Academy Finland said in a statement.

Oh really?

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. GabbyD permalink
    June 14, 2012 3:38

    he actually discusses fairness, a “tit for tat” mode of exchanging improvements.

    does ayn rand discuss fairness and tit for tat too? is that central in her philosophy?

    • June 14, 2012 3:38

      About fairness? That’s one of the central focuses of her philosophy. It’s about justice. In fact after reading that BBC interview I thought Linus Torvalds was actually channeling Ayn Rand. I even suspect that Torvalds, like Steve Jobs, must have read Ayn Rand. You have to read and understand Rand’s works to know that her philosophy is not just about the virtue of selfishness; it’s also about fairness and justice.

      Here’s an AR quote that somehow sounds like Torvalds’s ‘selfish’ statement: “America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.”

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 14, 2012 3:38

        so rand’s concept of fairness is the same as torvauld’s? tit for tat? you can use my intellectual property as long as i can use yours?

      • June 15, 2012 3:38

        I guess so, since Torvalds did not actually expound his idea about IP rights. But fairness, according to Torvalds, is the idea that get to contribution to a certain concept without being forced or compelled and the you get something from it (e.g., experience, acquired skills, connection, exposure, etc.) Money is not simply the object of selfishness, and this is what most people don’t understand. The object of selfishness can be self-improvement, self-exposure, acquired experiences, getting more connection, etc. You can use all those things to further your goal, which could be financial gain or whatever.

        You said: “you can use my intellectual property as long as i can use yours?”

        The fact is those developers voluntarily contributed their skills, experiences, and concepts. They were not coerced, forced or compelled. But like Torvalds said, the IP law still protects their idea.

    • June 14, 2012 3:38

      I’m not surprised at all that Torvalds, a very successful developer, said those things about ‘selfishness’. He truly understands that concept. Unlike many others that might include you, Torvalds truly knows what the concept of ‘selfish’ implies.

      That reminds me of Ayn Rand’s first three paragraphs in the introduction of her book ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. Her first three paragraphs read:

      The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”

      To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

      But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer.

      Those ‘others’ certainly include Linus Torvalds.

  2. GabbyD permalink
    June 15, 2012 3:38

    “The fact is those developers voluntarily contributed their skills, experiences, and concepts. They were not coerced, forced or compelled. But like Torvalds said, the IP law still protects their idea.”

    but they dont EXCLUSIVELY own their intellectual property under the Open Source regime.

    of course they werent forced. thats not the point. the point is the nature of ownership and the concept of fairness here allows people to SHARE ownership.

    so, did rand believe that this was possible?

    • June 15, 2012 3:38

      “but they dont EXCLUSIVELY own their intellectual property under the Open Source regime.”

      — You are greatly mistaken. The mere fact that their software is open-source does not mean it is not protected by IP rights. It is still protected by IP law. To produce an open-source software is a CHOICE. But that doesn’t mean you’re not protected by IP rights. Any open-source developer may run after an IP-theft for stealing his idea. It appears that you don’t understand both the concepts of IP rights and open-source. If you don’t understand those very simple concepts, then it’s no surprise you made those utterly flawed assertions.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 16, 2012 3:38

        “The mere fact that their software is open-source does not mean it is not protected by IP rights.” no thats NOT what i said.

        i said that innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated. the terms of the license say ANYONE can use/add to their innovations.

        it is these “terms” that are protected by law. (ie. if u dont follow the terms of the open access license, you may be sued)

        so, is this the kind of open access fairness shared by ayn rand?

        further: “Any open-source developer may run after an IP-theft for stealing his idea. ” ONLY if the stolen idea is marketed and sold for profit — that is a violation of open source licenses.

        ok?

      • June 16, 2012 3:38

        “i said that innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated. the terms of the license say ANYONE can use/add to their innovations.”

        — Are you kidding me? That’s why it’s all open source. That’s their choice. Any one can use their innovations because their contribution is Free and open-source software (FOSS). You know what that means?

        “so, is this the kind of open access fairness shared by ayn rand?”

        What are you talking about? Again, it’s FOSS. They can choose to make their products commercial like Microsoft and Apple software products. It’s as simple as that. Do you even follow? Or do you even know what you’re talking about? That’s why it’s called FOSS. Google that term to know what that means.

        “ONLY if the stolen idea is marketed and sold for profit — that is a violation of open source licenses.”

        First, their contribution is called Free and open-source software, which means a software that is both free software and open source. Also, “it is liberally licensed to grant users the right to use, copy, study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code.”

        Second, FOSS developers are protected by copyright, patents, trademarks and other legislation. You got that?

  3. GabbyD permalink
    June 16, 2012 3:38

    “They can choose to make their products commercial like Microsoft and Apple software products.”

    they cannot. name one open access created product that is sold commercially (for profit).

    • June 16, 2012 3:38

      I said they can choose to charge users certain amount of money if they want to. That’s my answer to your statement that ‘anyone can add or use their innovation’. Open-source developers are still protected by IP laws.

      What do you mean by “innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated”??? Will you clarify that statement.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 16, 2012 3:38

        “I said they can choose to charge users certain amount of money if they want to. ”

        they cannot. they are obligated to release the tech, allow any kind of improvement on it, as long as all improvements are available to everyone.

      • June 17, 2012 3:38

        “they cannot. they are obligated to release the tech, allow any kind of improvement on it, as long as all improvements are available to everyone.”

        — It appears you don’t know what you’re talking about. Open source software is free.

        Here are things you need to know about open source software:

        1. It’s free and open, so anybody can use it.

        2. It’s protected by IP rights, so you cannot simply steal the idea behind it.

        3. It is owned by the developer or developers, so it has owners.

        4. You can be held liable under the law for IP theft.

        5. Open source is a matter of choice on the part of developers.

        Are you saying developers are forced or “obligated” to make open source software? Then who and what forces or obligates them?

        You have not answered my question. What do you mean by “innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated”??? Will you clarify that statement.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 17, 2012 3:38

        “I said they can choose to charge users certain amount of money if they want to. That’s my answer to your statement that ‘anyone can add or use their innovation’. Open-source developers are still protected by IP laws.”

        i repeat — THEY CANNOT SELL THEIR IP FOR MONEY AND RESTRICT ITS USE.

        unlike a standard software lic agreement.

        this is also the answer to “What do you mean by “innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated”??? ”

        is this what ayn rand had in mind?

      • June 17, 2012 3:38

        LOL! You’re really funny! I said open source is a choice. If you’re a developer, you can choose to offer your idea/invention to users for free. But if you want to sell it, go on. But that would ‘end’ the open-source-ness of your idea.

        Just answer the question… What do you mean by “innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated”???

    • June 18, 2012 3:38

      @GabbyD
      //they cannot. name one open access created product that is sold commercially (for profit).//

      Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a Linux-based operating system developed by Red Hat and targeted toward the commercial market.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 18, 2012 3:38

        they dont sell software in the same way the microsoft does.

        what do they sell? some proprietary software, but mostly expertise and customer service:

        “Red Hat partly operates on a professional open-source business model based on open code, development within a community, professional quality assurance, and subscription-based customer support. They produce open-source code, so more programmers can make further adaptations and improvements.

        Red Hat sells subscriptions for the support, training, and integration services that help customers in using open-source software. Customers pay one set price for unlimited access to services such as Red Hat Network and up to 24/7 support.”

      • June 18, 2012 3:38

        @GabbyD but that’s exactly what makes RHEL an “enterprise” OS. It has many features and proprietary “add ons” which are separate and distinct from other Linux development(such as Fedora).

        And you can’t change the fact that it’s marketing target is the commercial market.

      • June 18, 2012 3:38

        @ Galdo and GabbyD,

        In short, open source provides a great stepping stone for starters. When you’re still starting, do not expect people or established companies to invest in your work. Like I said, “The system allows budding and potential developers to gain more technical knowledge and to acquire more skills they need to achieve their ultimate goal: financial and technical success.”

        Now, Linus can afford to go commercial. He’s now established. That’s what many developers are trying to follow. Yes, it’s all about SELFISHNESS.

      • June 18, 2012 3:38

        @ GabbyD,

        Are you a developer? I urge you to try to put your thoughts into action. Develop a software and try to sell your product to established computer/geek companies. I’m 1,000,000 percent sure nobody will ever try to look at your work. If you’re talented enough, your choice is to go open source. That’s the reality for most developers.

  4. GabbyD permalink
    June 17, 2012 3:38

    you keep saying that “the IP law still protects their idea.”. i have no problems with that.

    but the same IP open source lic does not give the innovator the same exclusive rights over his intellectual property. you also agree with this as you said :”1. It’s free and open, so anybody can use it.”

    note: this is GENERALLY NOT TRUE with property rights. i can stop you from using my IP under more standard arrangements.

    so, back to ayn rand: which regime of property rights does she support?

    • June 17, 2012 3:38

      You said: “but the same IP open source lic does not give the innovator the same exclusive rights over his intellectual property.”

      QUESTION: What do you mean by that statement? Expound.

      You said: “note: this is GENERALLY NOT TRUE with property rights. i can stop you from using my IP under more standard arrangements.”

      Answer: Then that answers your claim that “open source lic does not give the innovator the same exclusive rights over his intellectual property.”

      Don’t you see the sheer, gaping contradiction in your arguments? That simply show you know nothing about FOSS and IP rights.

      I said open source is “free and open, and anybody could use it” because that the idea of FOSS. Of course, you can always have control over your invention because you own it. You still don’t understand it?

    • GabbyD permalink
      June 17, 2012 3:38

      ““but the same IP open source lic does not give the innovator the same exclusive rights over his intellectual property.”
      QUESTION: What do you mean by that statement? Expound.

      ____________________
      what unclear? an innovator CANNOT RESTRICT ACCESS through ANY MEANS.

      “Of course, you can always have control over your invention because you own it.” not true in open access.

      • June 17, 2012 3:38

        “an innovator CANNOT RESTRICT ACCESS through ANY MEANS.”

        — Where did you get that idea? It’s FOSS, you moron. LOL!

        “not true in open access.”

        — That’s why it’s called FOSS, moron… It’s free and open source software, not “un-free and closed software”.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 18, 2012 3:38

        “– Where did you get that idea? It’s FOSS, you moron. LOL!”

        i got that from reading the terms of the Open Source license agreement.

      • June 19, 2012 3:38

        If you actually read any of those agreements and if you truly understood the concept of open source, will you answer me now and stop making gibberish… What do you mean by “innovators cannot exclusively control how their innovations are propagated”?

        And what do you mean by this: “how can you CONTROL SOMETHING, when ANYBODY COULD USE IT?”

  5. GabbyD permalink
    June 17, 2012 3:38

    “I said open source is “free and open, and anybody could use it” because that the idea of FOSS. Of course, you can always have control over your invention because you own it.”

    how can you CONTROL SOMETHING, when ANYBODY COULD USE IT?

    what kind of control is that?

    • June 17, 2012 3:38

      “how can you CONTROL SOMETHING, when ANYBODY COULD USE IT?”

      Wow! You’re getting crackier every time you respond. Have you brain checked. The answer to that is: Know the concept of FOSS.

      Anybody could use Facebook and WordPress.com, but the owner of these two sites still have control of their ‘products’.

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 18, 2012 3:38

        actually, you CANNOT use Facebook or WordPress however you want. (i’m sure you’ve heard people being booted out of FB right?)

        the license details EXACTLY HOW you are limited. the owners can cancel services AT ANY TIME.

        for open source, this is NOT TRUE.

      • June 19, 2012 3:38

        Are you saying you cannot control your property if anybody could use it? I’m using WordPress, but it’s still owned by its owners/developers. Of course we are all subject to the terms and conditions. LOL! That’s the essence of open source. It’s free but we are subject to the owners’ terms and conditions. You still don’t get it?

      • GabbyD permalink
        June 30, 2012 3:38

        thats my point froi. you are just repeating it. a user cannot use FB/etc however they like. you just agreed with my original argument.

        in the same way, innovators on open source are restrained in what they can do, and dont own property in the same way property is usually owned.

        i’m glad we finally agree on that. this is getting repetitive.

  6. August 5, 2012 3:38

    Linux is not an operating system but a a Kernel 🙂

    Ubuntu and Debian which are distros are operating system.

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