A morality tale about taking open source for granted

19 Mar

A few weeks ago, I went on a couple of job interviews. Sadly, all the firms I interviewed with ultimately turned out to be what I consider bad citizens of the Drupal community, and of the open source development community in general. That is to say, although they were using Drupal and other open source tools and often running quite profitable businesses as a result, they seemed to have zero interest in contributing back parts of their work or even interacting with other community members to help with documentation, logistics, etc.

This is a real classic “tragedy of the commons” situation. Drupal (and Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, Python, Django, and all the software you've ever loved) exists because a brain trust of talented, dedicated developers collectively creates and maintains it. Quite often some of the more significant contributions come from people like me who are employed full-time in some industry (usually media, in the case of Drupal) and who end up working on a project that has obvious applications for the rest of the community.

In this way, good code is produced on company time, for the direct immediate of the company, and then later given away for free to the rest of the community. It's a worthwhile proposition for the company, because if everyone approaches development that way, then the company will eventually get some downstream benefits as others contribute software that's useful to it. This concept originally explained the motivations and outlook of individual open source developers, but I'm starting to see it shape corporate behavior too these days.

So, cut to this morning. I received a call from one of those aforementioned bad open source citizens. It was the corporate recruiter, who was calling to me ask what the name of that open source language analysis software I mentioned in my interviews was. Ouch. Of course, I told her that having been turned down for the job, it was rather presumptuous of them to expect free help from me, and they were welcome to discuss consulting fees if that's what they wanted. She told me to have a nice day.

For the record, the package in question is the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer, which is a genius piece of software that identifies proper nouns in text. We use it on Politicker and my bootleg ripoff IsraelTicker to auto-generate tags. Now, I consider it poor form in general to call up a job candidate you turned down and ply them for info. But, truth be known I'd have been happy to help out someone (maybe even someone who politely informed me they couldn't make me offer) who I knew to be more of a team player.

We maintain relationships with a lot of other companies, media and otherwise, that use Drupal and we do give each other tips and advice, but it's usually predicated on an understanding that there's good faith on both sides to try to do the right thing for everyone, while also looking out for the bottom line. I officially have no respect for any company that wants all the benefits but doesn't want to pitch in.