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Linux Foundation chief: 'You are an idiot' if you don't give back to open source

Taking without contributing back to the upstream project defeats the benefit of open source and sooner or later, all open source users realize this, contends Jim Zemlin

By , Network World
August 30, 2011 09:47 AM ET
Jim Zemlin

Network World - Linux is the granddaddy of all open source projects, the blueprint for the decentralized development processes. And some of those who use the Linux code, free for the taking, don't give back in equal measure. Still, the time for cajoling those users -- even commercial projects like Ubuntu leader Canonical -- into participating is over, says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the nonprofit Linux Foundation.

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Zemlin, who spoke with Network World editors at the recent LinuxCon event, used to preach that contributing back was important on moral grounds, as the "right thing to do." But now he says, "It doesn't matter. I don't care if anyone contributes back." Sooner or later, he believes contributing will become an obvious business decision. It's "not the right thing to do because of some moral issue or because we say you should do it. It's because you are an idiot if you don't. You're an idiot because the whole reason you're using open source is to collectively share in development and collectively maintain the software. Let me tell you, maintaining your own version of Linux ain't cheap, and it ain't easy," he says.

He points out that Red Hat is one of the largest contributors to the kernel and also one of the most successful Linux distros. "So if some aren't giving back as much as others today, I just think it will naturally happen over time. It always is in their business interest to do so," Zemlin says.

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Canonical is the popular example in the Linux distro community of relatively paltry contributions to Linux (and also to GNOME, although it recently downgraded GNOME in favor of its homegrown desktop, Unity). In the latest tabulation of the biggest kernel contributors, Microsoft landed in the Top 10 while Canonical wasn't even in the Top 30, according to LWN.net. This has been going on for years. In 2008 Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman rather famously dressed down Canonical in his keynote speech at the Linux Plumbers Convention.

Canonical argues that its contribution is the popularization of Linux, which Zemlin does not dispute.

"Just to be clear, Canonical staff, engineers, management are not idiots. They get open source well and as they grow, I think it will be in their business interests to give back," he says.

While the profitability of privately held Canonical isn't known (the general understanding is that it's not profitable), there's little doubt that Ubuntu is popular and growing more so. It claimed more than 12 million users by the end of 2010 and is the fourth most popular Web server distro, according to W3Techs.

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For enterprises wondering how much contribution is fair to the open source projects they use most, if Linux can be seen as an example, the answer is: as much or as little as you want.

On the other hand, Linux isn't hurting for contributors. In 1992, 100 developers were working on the kernel. By the end of 2010, 1,000 were.

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