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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your attorney.

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It's Not About Communityanother view of Open Source

“Open Source” is a community—many communities—but not all who belong see community as an end in itself. For many hackers, Open Source matters because Open Source makes better software—a proven means to a worthy end, benefiting all communities, and not primarily the one we share.

As Open Source communities have grown, community issues once written off cheap have taken big tolls on software betterment. There is growing evidence that a certain kind of open source community makes some software better than others, at least some of the time. But that success doesn’t elevate community to purpose. For those who came to Open Source through software, rather than to software through Open Source, community remains an implementation detail.

If this smacks heretical, consider how “Open Source is about community” would ring outside the Open Source community, or reframed within a different community not our own. I’m handy. Let’s pick on me.

Contract drafting, like computer programming, is an esoteric craft, relied on by many, practiced by few. Would “plain-language contract drafting is about community”, proclaimed among lawyers, ring true? How about “industry-group committee contract drafting is about community”? Plain-language and collaborative drafting produce better contracts. But the purpose of good contracts is to benefit clients, not to make chance for happy association among their lawyers. Putting it backwards reeks of conspiracy against the laity. It seems to forget how important good contracts are, why, and to whom … or to slightly overstate lawyers’ troubles making friends outside Law Land.

To their credit, state bar associations, the professional organizations governing lawyers, put their mission statements the right way ‘round. The State Bar of California, for example:

The purpose of the State Bar of California is to ensure that the people of California are served by the legal profession in a manner consistent with the highest standards of professional competence, care, and ethical conduct; to carry out such additional programs as may be required by law or by rule of court; and to contribute generally to the science of jurisprudence and the administration of justice to the extent and in a manner consistent with the First Amendment rights of its members.

Though we’re oft loathe to admit it, lawyers, like programmers, are also means, insofar as we fill those roles. Between we means and the ends, things get made—contracts, software, and so on. In a perfect world, the things would get made quite without lawyers, and without specialist programmers. Competently programming computers and writing contracts would be easy enough for most to do for themselves with a bit of training—as they now drive cars, sans chauffeurs, and write notes, without scribes. In a less perfect world, nearer our own, lawyers and coders would do reliable work at attainable prices for one and all in need.

In some situations, we as a society—many many communities—have landed on means of achieving big ends at the direct expense of goodwill among go-betweens. In law, even deals lawyers in relatively convivial markets negotiate, and negotiations sometimes get rough. Settlement takes compromise, but litigation is adversarial by nature. Open Source mixes and matches, too. The community embraces collaboration in tools and standards, but relies on competition for many services, notably code hosting. Collaboratively produced Open Source projects often compete directly.

In practicing software, as in practicing law, extremists tend to come up empty-handed. I’ve made dear friends through both software and law. That would not have been possible if I’d entered every Open Source encounter, or every phone call with opposing counsel, bristling for a fight, or keen to grab everything I could get. Nor if I’d always given when others moved to take, to the point that I couldn’t afford to stay. I’ve written before that Open Source maintainers can’t make on like perpetual Santa Claus. I don’t condone unsportsmanlike conduct, within or without the rules, either. Lawyers balance, too. In my line of work, a good reputation, a neutral-to-positive tone, and a pragmatic attitude serve clients best.

A great many of my software friends are very focused on community these days. And I’m so happy to help them, under coder hat or lawyer hat, however I’m able. This post is in that vein, trying to offer up a view of the situation, and a way of talking about it, that often seems to grate more than it should. Far from all problems of technical interest yield to the standard technical slice-and-dice analytical approach. When technical people speak technical values, using technical vocabulary, it’s easy to hear a call for that kind of chopping-block approach. That’s a problem of communication, and therefore a community problem. It limits how the community can talk about itself, and therefore how the community can work on itself.

Friction be damned, Open Source is changing. It always has. Hopefully for the better. May all our communities be well served.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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