Distribution is Contribution

When the topic of contributions to FOSS come up, it usually happens that people focus entirely on the aspect of creation, specifically code creation, to the exclusion of all others.  In the context of software, this makes a certain amount of sense, since the primary product is the code itself, either in source or binary form.  Even the more broadly-focused, who make a point to expand their definition to include things like documentation and artwork, will still focus exclusively on the creation of those works.  And yet perhaps the single biggest factor towards increased creation of code is in the distribution of what is being created.

There are a number of reasons for people to write new code.  We often talk about a developer “scratching their own itch”, but other times it can be a matter of personal improvement, monetary gain, or even just plain fun.  While there are many reasons to write code, there are not so many reasons for releasing it under a Free or Open Source license.  By choosing such a license, the author explicitly wants his or her creation to be used by others, as many others as possible in fact.  The use of their creation is what motivates them, and it stands to reason that the more it is used, the more motivating it becomes to create.  The underlying reason why this is motivating can vary, but the fact is that creators of FOSS are motivated by the use of FOSS, and the more users there are, the more motivation there will be for creating it.

The number and variety of potential consumers of FOSS is larger than any single developer can hope to reach.  Even a group of developers, even a large group of them, will find it impossible to make their creations available to the widest possible audiences.  And the more effort they put into making their creation available, the less time and resources they have to put back into creating new things.  Likewise the smaller the pool of potential consumers, the less reason developers have to improve on or create something in the first place.  But by choosing an open source license, developers separate the work of distribution from that of creation.  The desire for their creation, then, will naturally lead to a much larger number of individuals and groups bringing these creations to the people who want them.  More importantly, by focusing exclusively on the task of distributing, these new groups are able to afford not just one project, but a multitude of projects, with an increase in the consumption of their creation.  And with an increase in consumption, it is reasonable to expect an increase in contributions.

The default application selection for each Ubuntu release is often the subject of much discussion and advocacy.  People called for the inclusion of Banshee long before Ubuntu made the switch.  It’s unimaginable that people who like a project and appreciate it’s developers would actively seek to have it used by an organization that contributed nothing back.  Likewise when it was announced that Ubuntu would switch back to Rhythmbox, those same advocates genuinely believed that they had lost something, again something unimaginable if they weren’t gaining something valuable from the distribution.  When PiTiVi was selected as a default application, advocates for Openshot made a very strong case for why their preferred application should be included, again because they knew that the project would gain something of value from the increased distribution.  The same happened with F-Spot and Shotwell, with the removal of the Gimp, the various boot splash systems, and more.  I can only assume that the same happens in other distributions.  The only reason why this would happen is if, whether consciously or not, people see a real value, as real as the value of code contributions, in being distributed as widely as possible.

By relieving the developers of the need to put resources into distribution, distributors allow them to create more using the same commitment of time and resources.  Likewise, by increasing the number of people who will be using it, the distributors multiply the motivating value, whatever it may be, that the developer gets in return.  And as the motivation for creating increases, the number of people who participate in creating also increases.  In this way, every distributor of Free and Open Source software contributes towards increasing the total number of creators and creations (including lines of code written), and they do so in direct proportion to the expansiveness of their distribution.

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5 Responses to Distribution is Contribution

  1. jussi says:

    In ubuntu’s case, its not only distribution, but the creation of sane defaults for the ubuntu audience which also adds value.

    Also, is open source not about being able to use the product without having to give anything back? Surely giving something back is not required? If they were, should there not be a Price attached to the product…?

    • Martin Owens says:

      technically speaking jussi, you are allowed to not give anything back just as one is able to pollute and fail to plow the field for the next year’s plants. It is silly to expect any improvement if we each to do add something to the project.

  2. Canonical utilizes the existing code base it needs to build the product it wants to build. It then codes the missing pieces it wants. It pushes its changes back to upstream, when appropriate, and it is up to upstream to accept them or not.
    This is a very pragmatic approach and is how Open Sourceâ„¢ is supposed to work. It does not make sense for them to code in features that do not interest them, and it also doesn’t make sense for them to write new code to replace existing code with identical, or good enough, functionality.
    It does not behoove any downstream to keep a large patch-set against upstream, and the very little work I’ve done for Ubuntu, I’ve always been asked to submit upstream because they don’t want the headache of keeping a bunch of patches around.

  3. Pingback: Creation as Contribution | Michael Hall's Blog

  4. Pingback: S05E04 – Cube Root of Conquest | Ubuntu Podcast

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