David Heinemeier Hansson

October 18, 2022

The scarcity scarecrows of Open Source

I love the ethos of open source: Free code creating a true commons in software. I'm less enthralled with some of the particulars of capitalized Open Source movement, which at times seem obsessed with the same scarcity mentality that runs the commercial branch of our industry. One of those times is right now with the fight over GitHub's Copilot AI.

I captured the problem with scarcity scarecrows in Open Source in the treatise I won't let you pay me for my open source a few years ago, so if you care about the recently announced investigation into a potential lawsuit against Microsoft over GitHub's Copilot AI, you might want to give it a read.

Then checkout the announcement of this new investigation, and see if you can't spot some of the many scarcity scarecrows it employs. Here are a few choice bits:

By offer­ing Copi­lot as an alter­na­tive inter­face to a large body of open-source code, Microsoft is doing more than sev­er­ing the legal rela­tion­ship between open-source authors and users. Arguably, Microsoft is cre­at­ing a new walled gar­den that will inhibit pro­gram­mers from dis­cov­er­ing tra­di­tional open-source com­mu­ni­ties. Or at the very least, remove any incen­tive to do so. Over time, this process will starve these com­mu­ni­ties. User atten­tion and engage­ment will be shifted into the walled gar­den of Copi­lot and away from the open-source projects them­selves—away from their source repos, their issue track­ers, their mail­ing lists, their dis­cus­sion boards. This shift in energy will be a painful, per­ma­nent loss to open source.

This is classic zero-sum thinking. The kind that open source at its best transcends for me, and Open Source at its worst entrenches.

First of all, I can't even recognize the logical steps toward this dire conclusion of a "painful, permanent loss to open source". Because someone can autocomplete a method or even a class, we're going to lose open source communities, where people collaborate on shared software, report bugs, and build on each others' work? How?

Half the end-user benefit of using open source software is to participate in a long-run relationship of practitioners who collaborate on continued improvement of said software. How does getting a one-off snapshot, tailored with AI to your particulars, in any way undermine this?

Second of all, GitHub's Copilot AI is in my opinion exactly the kind of collaborative, innovative breakthrough that I'm thrilled so see any open source code that I put into the world used to enable. Isn't this partly why we share our code to begin with? To enable others to remix, reuse, and regenerate with? It certainly is key amongst my reasons.

There's a funny mirror version of this investigation that looks an awfully lot like Oracle's tragic attempt to copyright the Java APIs. To use the law to lock critical software into this dungeon of scarcity thinking. Aren't these the demons we in the open source community were meant to be fighting rather than become?

You don't even have to like or use Copilot to be troubled by this investigation into the legitimacy of its existence. If we seek to indict how AI might enable us to "engage with the body of open source code", why stop at the AI level? Should we also indict CDNs that compile JavaScript libraries into resources that can be pulled over the internet without ever visiting the project homepage? Or bundled packages of any kind? If it's the intermediation that brings forth the froth, there are many other forms that we might suddenly start to suspect.

These are the ways of closed software. The greed with which free use is often curtailed, unless it's explicitly allowed. As a maker of both commercial and open source software, I understand the need to protect the rights of the former. But that's exactly why I also choose to invest my time in the latter as well. To escape this trap of hoarding positive rights, lest someone, somewhere, might get away with some inspired feat of unauthorized creativity that builds upon my work.

Now I accept that reasonable people can draw different conclusions on the Copilot AI. And of course that reasonable open source creators can create for different reasons. But I still think it's more than worth our time to critically and repeatedly question this scarcity mindset that at times overpowers the virtues of sharing in Open Source. And at least make a point to opt out of this brigade, if one is summoned in your name, when all you want is to write software, share it freely, and see humanity prosper broadly as a result.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Creator of Ruby on Rails, co-owner & CTO of 37signals (Basecamp & HEY), best-selling author (REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, REMOTE), Le Mans class-winning racing driver, antitrust advocate, investor in Danish startups, frequent podcast guest, and family man.