A new 80/20 rule for open source

I didn’t have a post for yesterday, which means I haven’t managed to follow even the lenient rules I had set out for myself at the beginning.  I could claim that, since yesterday was a holiday in the USA it falls under the weekend exception, but that’s just cheating.  I fell short of my UbBloPoMo goals, I’ll own up to it.  It’s still the longest run of consistent postings this blog has ever seen, so I don’t consider this a failure. I hope you’ve all been enjoying it.

Part of the reason I didn’t post anything was because I spent the end of last week dealing with fallout from a couple of things I was involved in, my own post about Mozilla and the Community Council statement about Mint, and I was quite frankly not in the mood for either a lighthearted or a diplomatic post, so I made the decision not to post something I might later regret[1]. But during the controversy around both, one unifying meme started to emerge to me, which is the subject of this post, what I see as a new 80/20 rule.

Put simply, this rule says that people will tend to appreciate it more when you give them 20% of something, and resent you if you give them 80%.  It seems completely counter-intuitive, I know, but that’s what I was seeing in all of those conversations.  People by and large were saying that the reason Canonical and Mozilla were being judged so harshly was because they already did most of what those people wanted, which made them resented that they didn’t do everything.

When asked why they were so happy when somebody like Valve only gave them free (gratis) games, the response was almost always because they didn’t expect anything at all. But Canonical, because they gave almost everything away for free, is resented for something as minor as a CLA or closed-source Smart Scopes Service.  When I compare Canonical’s licensing approach to Mint with Red Hat’s approach to CentOS and Oracle, I was again told that they appreciated Red Hat requiring those derivatives to strip trademarks and re-build packages, but resented Canonical’s approach of explicitly letting Mint distribute Ubuntu packages with trademarks, because we didn’t go as far as they wanted. With Mozilla people took to closed-source, ad-filled websites or activity-tracking social media networks to berate Mozilla for daring to put commercial content in unused screen space.  Again, they were fine with ads on websites and Google tracking their conversations because it was expected, the fact that they existed at all was seen as a gift.  But because Mozilla has previously been so non-commercial and privacy focused , this small exception was seen as highly offensive to those same people.

To put this into a non-technical analogy, imagine you are hungry and somebody walks by with a sandwich.  If they stop and give you 20% of their sandwich, you will appreciate them sharing with you out of their bounty.  But if the same person gave you 80% of the sandwich, your first thought might be to question why they held back that 20%.  It’s a strange phenomenon, but when they keep 80% you still consider the whole sandwich as belonging to them, and thus your 20% is a gift.  But when they give you 80%, you perceive the whole thing as yours, and their remaining 20% as something taken from you.

This isn’t just a strange phenomenon, it’s a very troubling one.  It means that we are more likely to punish those people and projects that treat us well, and praise those that treat us poorly. That’s what I saw happening last week, and once I recognized what was happening I was able to see that it’s been happening for a very long time now.  And it’s not just Canonical and Mozilla, look at any open source project with a sizable user community and you’ll see the same thing.

I don’t know how to change this for the whole open source community, but the realization is certainly going to change the way I view those projects that I use.  I am going to make it a point to remember that none of the sandwich belongs to me, and to see everything somebody makes and gives me as a gift, and appreciate it even when it’s not everything that I wanted, because having 80% is always better than having 20%. I hope this post changes the way some of you view open source projects too.

[1] I agree with Jono’s On Accountability post, I don’t unpublish what I write or block comments that I don’t like.  But the other side of that coin is that I self-censor posts that are written in the heat of the moment, and have decided against publishing a number of things after letting them sit in draft status overnight and rereading them with a fresh perspective.

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31 Responses to A new 80/20 rule for open source

  1. Dennis Shimer says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’ve never thought about it this way, but it puts several things into a new perspective for me. Maybe I should know the answer to this but is this based on something you have seen? I have seen several 80/20 rules but haven’t come across this particular take on it (reward 20, resent 80).

  2. Winael says:

    Hi Michael,

    I think it’s not a 80/20 issue, but a definition of what is freedom.

    There’s two different approach. One, with people who decide for end users what is OK to be free and what is not. And the other one who let the choice to the end user with a transparent and neutral approach.

    I’m not scared about Smart Scopes Service, because we work on specs together (the Community), the specs are published on Wiki, and it’s quite easy to have a discussion with people who work on it. And I have the choice to use it or not.

    For Moz ads, it’s basically some links. nothing to worried.

    I noticed that people prefere to trust those who want to impose their Manichean vision of freedom but they didn’t trust those who offer the choice of freedom.

    It is not a question of what is it given, but a question of trust.

    • John Smith says:

      The closed-source smart scopes are definitely not something small, and this is not a matter of beinf scared or not. The smart scopes are something built in a crucial part of the — open source — shell, yet their source is closed, and for no important reason. It’s a very worrying trend started with Ubuntu One that is now being expanded. It seems almost everything related to Canonical servers will become closed, and it’s very worrisome and unencoraging.

      The thing is if we wanted an OS made up of a mix of proprietary and open-source we would go to Android. Ubuntu’s major value is that it’s (supposed to be) almost completely open source, except for some drivers that the community can’t open.

  3. > but resented Canonical’s approach of explicitly letting Mint distribute Ubuntu packages with trademarks

    how do you know that is what Canonical licenced to Mint? Nothing has been published about what Canonical licenced, just vauge suggestions. What use of trademarks do they need to licence?

    • Michael Hall says:

      I’m basing it off the license my own derivative distro was given

      • Wayne Masters says:

        Where can we find a copy of this license?

        • Michael Hall says:

          You can ask either Canonical legal or the Mint developers who received it, though I doubt either of them is going to be interested in getting entangled in the public outrage by doing so.

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            I interpretted his question as asking you specifically… as licensee for your derivative distribution… if you were willing to make the licensing terms you agreed to..public.

            I mean, you sort of threw it out there that your a licensee. And you sort of threw it out there that you are basing your opinion of the Mint situation based on your license. So you have all of us at a disadvantage here. You’ve seen your license. We haven’t.

            So… I’m ask the question more specifically.

            Can you please make the license you agreed to for your derivative distrbution public, and provide a link to that document here in this discussion thread so everyone who is reading this can review the license that you are basing your opinion on.


          • Michael Hall says:

            Nobody has seemed at all interested in Qimo’s license, and there’s no guarantee that it’s the same as Mint’s license so I don’t think it would satisfy anybody anyway.

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            Right… there’s no garuntee that its the same. But in the context of this discussion you have already stated you are forming an opinion of what the Mint license looks like based on your reading of the licensing you’ve seen.

            Look you opened this up for discussion by going out of your way to stating an opinion about what the Mint license looks like based on the content of your license.

            All I’m asking is that you provide us the same reference material that you have access to so we can form our own opinions. That’s it. If you don’t want to make your license public… just say so. Just state for the record that you refuse to publish the license agreement that you signed. Don’t even have to state a reason. And if you don’t want to make your own license public when asked for it… then its a bit hypocritical to tell people to ask the Mint devs to make theirs public.

            You could have refrained from stating an opinion about the Mint license. You could have refrained from mentioning your derivative distro at all. But you made the choice to include it and to hold it up as a reasonable license. Okay then… pony up the text. Let us all read it so we can come to our own conclusions about the reasonableness of it.

          • Michael Hall says:

            And have my distro dragged into this the way Mint was? No thank you. I agree, I shouldn’t have mentioned it, feel free to ignore that comment and continue as if nothing JR’s comment went unanswered. I think Clem has the right idea, best to stay quiet about it.

      • What in your derivative distribution needs a trademark licence?

        • Michael Hall says:

          It contains a mix of Ubuntu archive packages and out-of-archive packages (my fault for not getting them done and submitted). It’s not Ubuntu, but it does ship packages that contain Ubuntu labels and logos. All of this is very similar to Mint (though my diff with Ubuntu is much smaller)

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            Mint distributes content with Ubuntu trademarks in it?
            I wasn’t aware of that. Can you point me to a specific Mint install image that I can inspect or a Mint package that I can inspect that contains the Ubuntu marks?

            If Mint is just pointing users to existing public Ubuntu mirrors, that’s not redistribution. Pointing users to a public repository structure, is not redistribution.

            So please, can you point me to a specific item that Mint distributes that contains the Ubuntu marks.

          • Michael Hall says:

            If Mint’s software is pointing the user to Ubuntu packages and downloading them to their machine, they are distributing it. The legal precedent for that was been established many times when piracy websites used the claim “We didn’t distribute it, we just told the user where and how and made it really easy for them to do it” and were found guilty anyway.

          • Scott says:

            Michael, an important distinction is if those linking to copyrighted content were convicted of copyright infringement, or encouraging infringement. Pirate Bay, for example was convicted of accessory to crimes against copyright laws.

            So if, by and large, these were “accessory” crimes, then how can Mint be an accessory to an entirely legal activity (Canonical distributing their own software) ?

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            Nope.. wrong.

            The mirrors are distributing them.
            The mirrors are distributing them.
            The mirrors are distributing them.

            In fact this is exactly the logic that Debian and ubuntu packaging uses to work around the Adobe flash no redistribution clause. The flash installer package, goes out and grabs the flash binary from Adobe. Adobe is the distributor, the packaging system in Debian and ubuntu is just pointing people to an authorized distributor and then doing a series of local configuration changes to integrate the binary into the system on behalf of the user.

            It is absolutely a bridge to far to claim that pointing people to public mirrors is an act of redistribution. The mirrors are the redistributors.
            If you and other Canonical employees persist in trying to redefine what redistribution means, you are going to get a serious black eye. Just stop. Just stop.

          • >If Mint’s software is pointing the user to Ubuntu packages and downloading them to their machine, they are distributing it.

            They are perfectly entitled to distribute the packages, it’s free software, much of it under the GPL licence. As a copyright holder on some of the software in the archive I’m very insulted by the suggestion that derivatives could not distribute packages containing my software, binary or otherwise.

            If there are trademark uses that affect the branding of the software they should be removed. Last time I tried Mint there was no Ubuntu branding anywhere.

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            It’s important to point out that the piracy analogy you are using are based on copyright law…. not trademark law. Pointing to an illicit copy of material, provided by a mirror that does not have the legal authority to host that content and to make it publicly available is an entirely different situation than pointing people to a a legally authorized distributor o the content.

            Because the public mirrors are not commiting a crime by hosting the material..by redistributin the material… Mint is not committing a crime by pointing people to the material hosted on an authorized redistributor. To claim Mint is engaged in piracy is to claim explicitly that the mirrors they are pointing to are hosting illicit copies of Ubuntu packages. And that is a falsehood and it look a hell of a lot like Canonical bullying the external development community, when any Canonical employee talks about this theory of how copyright licensing for redistribution works.

            Your blog and other blogs like it from employees are going to cause Canonical another fullon crapstorm. It’s really unfortunate that you’ve chosen to…what’s the term…socialize.. this particular legal theory. This is terrible strategic messaging. Terrible.

          • Michael Hall says:

            If you want to argue the legality of it you are free to do so, but I don’t think Mint is interested in turning it into a legal fight when the license pretty much resolves it in their favor.

          • Jef Spaleta says:

            I don’t think your in any position to form an opinion about what Mint thinks.

            I’m pretty sure we been mostly talking about what you think. And the goal here for me at least is to get you to walk back away from even toying with some very very disturbing and malformed ideas as to what constitutes inappropriate redistribution.

            If you don’t want to discuss the legal aspects fine, but that’s troubling to, because clearly you have formed an opinion as to whether or not Mint is engaging in inappropriate activities. And your unwillinginess to discuss that forerightly in a public space, just means your going to continue to repeat your opinions in spaces where your won’t be confonted. You are going to breed misinformation simply restating your opinion to people that trust you and that’s a real problem.

            I’m not encouraged by the level of discourse I’m getting from anyone who is voicing an opinion similar to yours about the illicit and/or inappropriate nature of Mint’s actions. It’s absolutely wrongheaded. And the longer it persists as a meme, the more blowback Canonical is going to get over this. Your personal statements here only confuse things more.

            There really needs to be some clarity here as to what Canonical is actually going to start demanding of derivatives who consume binary Ubuntu packages. I fully expect that the FSF is going to weigh in on this, and if Canonical is making any demands at all that derivatives who re-use Ubuntu packages that contains FSF copyrighted software (devoid of Canonical trademarked materials) obtain an additional license, there is going to be a reckoning. It’s completely unclear as to what is actually going on and what the demands are actually are. The Ippolicy doesn’t actually go into great detail as to how “license need” is determined. But your opinions here, are very disturbing.

  4. Justyn says:

    I’ve often thought the same thing, that there seems to be a double standard in peoples’ attitudes towards the actions of predominantly open source companies and their more proprietary counterparts.

    But couldn’t we be looking at it the wrong way?

    I assume that the people being most outraged at moves like the recent Mozilla ads or Canonical’s derivative licensing in fact ideally want 100% from everyone. That is, 100% adherence to their own free software/etc principles.

    What they get so upset about is not the proportion (eg 20% or 80%) but actually the direction of change in proportion.

    A company like Valve has previously been at closer to 0%. All their recent moves have been at least somewhat friendly toward Linux and/or open source in general. So they are celebrated.

    Whereas organisations like Mozilla or Canonical have long been associated with open source, and by extension freedom and privacy, so lets say they’ve actually been at >80%. So whenever they make a move, no matter how small, that runs contrary to someone’s definition of freedom/privacy, it is a loss. It’s like ceding ground you previously thought was safe in a battle over territories.

    The key takeaway from looking at it like this is that since they are caused by a change, the controversy is largely transient. People settle down and adapt their expectations to the new percentage.

    That said, people can remember the negative feelings towards the entity in question.
    Perhaps that implies that it is better to start off more conservatively when open sourcing, so that you can always be perceived to be moving in the “positive” direction. Of course it is too late for Canonical or Mozilla to do that.

    It’s easy to forget that even Red Hat has had its own share of controversies, particularly back around the time RHEL and Fedora were created. But who thinks of them now?

  5. massysett says:

    Very insightful, thanks. Came here from Reddit. /r/linux cheers because Steam puts their proprietary platform on Linux where it distributes proprietary games, yet excoriates Canonical for putting some profit-making bits into a Linux distribution that is almost entirely “free” in every sense of the word.

  6. Ali Najafi says:

    It’s interesting for me because just yesterday one of my friends and I were talking about this rule in real life (not open-source).
    Now I understand your earlier post. Sometimes we people should sit back, breathe deeply, re-read our sentences, then publish.

  7. Hex says:

    Not only is the 80/20 rule counter intuitive, it is in direct opposition to what is seen in reality. There is a whole field of economic(and increasingly neurologically) based inquiry dealing with transaction games. Tangentially this has to do with fairness, and when people start to reject offers.
    In the case of the Ultimatum Game, the stats are exactly the opposite of what Hall claims; at 20% people almost universally reject free money.
    Again people have done this study,(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game#References) It is in fact the opposite.
    Perhaps the discrepancy Hall is here referring to has more to do with if there is perceived value and utility to the changes to the product, rather what percentage of those changes is “good” or “bad”.


  8. Laurent Bourgault-Roy says:

    The psychology study I know about seems to disagree with your statement.

    See the ultimatum game

    I Believe what really is at work here is something much more basic : loss aversion

    Ubuntu and Mozilla are two organisation that hyped themselve to death on the fact that they were the “good guy”, that they were doing what is right. That meant that people who contributed came to fully expect that the product would always be “pure”. But the recent decision messed that. With ads, Firefox is not “pure” anymore. With a CLA, Ubuntu is not “pure, free open source” anymore (Firefox got the same amount of flak when they tried to protect their own brand, see IceWeasel).

    And this loss of “purity” is what make people up in arm. If the product had been dirty from the start nobody would have batted an eye. This is why they don’t care about Facebook. Or maybe they did (at the start), but they have long accepted to compromise on that particuliar subject.

    Of course. lets not forget also the vocal minority effect. It only take a few religious zealot to corrupt a discussion.

    • Michael Hall says:

      The Ultimatum game is a bit different, as neither participant was the original owner of the money, so the first is not “giving” to the other, he’s negotiating

      • Hex says:

        I’m trying to wrap my head around what this response could possibly mean. Of course its a negotiation. To use your sandwich example, person A(one who makes the offer) is not forcing person B to accept or holding a gun to their head. We can presume that they both still have agency. In that sense it is always a negotiation. All that is required for the Ultimatum game is that there be a divisible good that’s existence depends on the transaction, and two actors, one of which offers and the other that engages that offer.

        If you deny the first axiom, (I’m taking my sandwich and going home) the item ceases to retain relevancy as a public good. It also demonstrates implicit ownership, as is the case with private goods. Which might have been the point of using the phrase “original ownership”, except that Open Source software is explicitly non-private. This is all the more obvious with distros and browsers as their value, longevity and often utility is intimately dependent on the amount of people that use them. To make an appeal to ownership to deny that a negotiation is taking place is to deny the role that people play in giving a good its value and therefore has nothing to do in the realm of transactions at all.

        If you deny the second axiom(You are going to eat as much of this sandwich as I give you) you are attempting to play in game theory whats known as a Dictator Game, in which person B must always accept whatever split person A offers. While I have no doubt this is how many resource controllers view the world, these games have nothing to do with value propositions pertaining to person B, because, in order for the game to take place, it is always assumed that person B must accept. At this point it would be natural to expect someone to hand-wave about free markets or morality, which indeed is how the real world deals with the problem of the dictator game, but these can only ever by a way to justify the rational of the dictator or his morality, or to, as in the case of the rejection of the first axiom, cancel / invalidate the transaction altogether. In any case it has absolutely nothing to do with the value of the split being offered by the dictator.

        As a final note, when it came to real world trials of various Dictator Games, when the transaction was presented in a double blind manner (a good description of internet distribution id say) most dictators decided to keep 80% of whatever pot was at stake, leaving 20% for the recipient.(http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Bestiary_of_Behavioral_Economics/Dictator_Game#Actual_Results)
        Make of that what you will.

        • Michael Hall says:

          In my example, person A already has the sandwich, he’s under no rule to share it with person B and person B has no control over whether or not person A gets to keep it. It’s not an ultimatum for person A, there is no decision forced on him.

          In open source there is still ownership, maybe not of the code but still of the project. The value of that ownership is indeed dependent on the quality and quantity of it’s users, but that value is applied to the project not the code. If you fork Firefox and distribute the exact same code under a different project that you own, I guarantee it won’t be given the same value as Firefox itself.

          • Hex says:

            Except there is an obligation on person A. An implicit instead of explicit one, but an obligation nevertheless. He has a responsibility to direct current and future action in service of the public trust.
            Without that trust, his product has no value. No one will accept a sandwich from a untrustworthy source. I think we’ve tortured this metaphor enough, but the point should be obvious; Without other people, there are no contributors, and there certainly is no market. And with that, no market value.
            This is the ultimatum of the name.

            If you think the dictator handing out the goods is more important than the goods itself, I can only say this; they get overthrown all the time, and they are a dime a dozen.

  9. Hey Michael,

    Just got around to reading this today. I suppose I agree generally with the existence of the “80/20 rule” phenomena that you see. Canonical certainly seems to get heat for things that other companies don’t, but in a lot of ways it is too big of a generalization.

    What really gets me is the idea that “none of the sandwich belongs to me.” As someone who has been contributing to Ubuntu for years, I both feel a sense of ownership over the project and literally own the copyright on (admittedly small) parts of the project. So yes, I do expect more from Ubuntu.

    I think that sense of ownership I feel is a good thing. Instilling that in contributors is what keeps them around. It’s the difference between a dedicated project member and fly-by patch contributor. It’s what creates real community, but it also makes things hurt more when the project you’ve dedicated countless hours to does something you disagree with.

    Over the years, most of the hyped up Canonical controversies didn’t phase me. Though I find the recent issues around derivative licensing extremely demotivating. It seems that a number of current and former Ubuntu contributors feel the same way. Without getting into all the details again, I’d encourage you to at least think about this from the viewpoint of your fellow contributors who are bothered by it. It seems that you don’t even understand why we would feel this way.

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