Why There is no Kernel Hacker Sell-Out

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As you may have noticed, posting to this blog was light last week, as in non-existent (OK, so you didn't notice.) This was because I was engaged in some serious geeking-out at the LCA2010 conference.

One of the talks that I saw came from Jon Corbet, who gave a run-down on recent changes to the Linux kernel. A statistic that he mentioned along the way has garnered much comment: the fact that "75% of the code comes from people paid to do it.” In particular, some have leapt on this figure as proof that kernel coders have “sold out”, and that the famed altruistic impulse behind free software is dead. I think this is nonsense.

In my view, this 75% figure indicates two things. First, that *most* of the top kernel hackers are being paid to code. That's really great news, because it means that people can earn money doing what they love, and aren't obliged to starve in garrets. Secondly, it means that very large computer companies regard the kernel as so important that they are prepared to pay these people good salaries to work on it.

The reason why this doesn't mean that hackers have sold out was put well by Eric Raymond in a piece called “Surprised by Wealth”, written back in 1999. This was when the first high-profile IPOs of open source companies were starting to take place, with the knock-on effect that many leading hackers became rather rich thanks to the shares that had been given:

I was at my machine, hacking, when I got email congratulating me on the success of the VA Linux Systems IPO. I was working on my latest small project -- a compiler for a special-purpose language I've designed called Scriptable Network Graphics, or SNG. SNG is an editable representation of the chunk data in a PNG. What I'm writing is a compiler/decompiler pair, so you can dump PNGs in SNG, edit the SNG, then recompile to a PNG image.

"Congratulations? That's interesting," said I to myself. "I didn't think we were going out till tomorrow." And I oughtta know; I'm on VA's Board of Directors, recruited by Larry Augustin himself to be VA's official corporate conscience, and it's a matter of public record that I hold a substantial share in the company. I tooled on over to Linux Today, chased a link -- and discovered that Larry Augustin had taken the fast option we discussed during the last Board conference call. VA had indeed gone out on NASDAQ -- and I had become worth approximately forty-one million dollars while I wasn't looking.

He then goes on to analyse the general implications of this kind of sudden wealth for the hacker community:

Reporters often ask me these days if I think the open-source community will be corrupted by the influx of big money. I tell them what I believe, which is this: commercial demand for programmers has been so intense for so long that anyone who can be seriously distracted by money is already gone. Our community has been self-selected for caring about other things -- accomplishment, pride, artistic passion, and each other.

The point is, any competent hacker who was in this for the money would have joined a proprietary software company on a nice fat salary years ago. The ones who work on free software like the Linux kernel are the ones who care about it; the fact that they are now getting paid is incidental, if highly welcome.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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