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hacking for coins

Wow, the Mission is jumping tonight. Sirens, a car driving around in loops with an ultrasound sound system, and a man who shouts “hein” every 45 seconds.

I’m a bit under the gun today, so here as usual when I can’t think of anything to write, is something I thought of to write years ago. It’s another Linux User column — usually I’d just stick it with the others in the ugly column corner, but I suspect nobody finds them there, so you have the joy of it clogging up your RSS reader too. Enjoy!

Hacking for Coins

Originally published in Linux User and Developer sometime in 2003/2004. License here

One recurring question of Linux development and the open source development
model in general is that of remuneration. How does one get paid for the
generous work generally volunteered toward a free software project?

There are many models proposed for guaranteeing some financial support for
those wishing to work full-time. There’s patronage. This is where the Crown
Prince of Bavaria, say, gives Linus Torvalds a castle and a moat, and bids him
to write code for the pleasure of the court, or else be thrown in the dungeon
with those BSD mongrels. Linus goes on to create great works, often prefaced
with a large set of logon messages in praise of his honoured patron, only to
die later in poverty following some dismissive comments he includes in a
kernel driver about the CEO of OSDN’s mistresses’ pet lioness.

Critics of patronage point out to live on the whims of a distant,
self-involved elite is a demeaning life for Linux programmers, reminiscent as
it is of both medieval surfdom and being a mere Linux user, both of which
being horrid epochs that as a civilisation we imagine we have transcended.

Another possibility, at one stage I believe semi-seriously proposed by Richard
M Stallman, is a “software tax”: a government program to provide the basic
infrastructure of society by funding open source development out of public
funds. Indirectly, of course, this is what many of our university computer
science departments do now, along of course with their generous financial
support of the brewery, cigarette paper and Pot Noodle industries.

Unfortunately, a Ministry of Hacking has many obstacles to overcome. Many of
our American cousins would believe that the is nothing less than communism,
and would lead to gun control, socialised medicine, and publically-subsidised
firemen. In Britain, while a Code Dole would have some appeal, many government
offices require you to sign on at unfeasibly early hours of the afternoon,
which would make the whole process so unpleasant to many hackers that they
might simply not bother and die of poverty and neglect.

Both of these concepts assume that financial aid for open source coders need
come from outside. But geeks are not helpless, and full of ideas and
creativity. Might not we, in some way be able to temporarily disengage our
mighty brains from finding a better way to sort alphanumeric lists, and
imagine a way of general earning money for ourselves?

In the past, such a gargantuan and uncharacteristic act of concentration has
produced mixed results. Many software projects have temporarily attempted to
live off Google Adsense earnings. As it transpires, the number of adverts
targetted at people wanting to browse CVS repositories is not enormous, and
once all your readers have clicked on the “Visit Ebay, Where We have
Thousands of CVS Repositories For Sale!” advert, revenue pretty much dries up.

Thinking more laterally, many geeks have come up with ingenious, but perhaps
unrealistic projects. Downloaders can pay to have a CD of sources delivered by
a naked singing “Fat Bearded Guy A Gram”. Or costs can be defrayed until the
senior developer’s designs for a space elevator provide enough Helium-3 sales
to pay off the bank loan.

More prosaic is the crazy, mind-boggling possibility of “keeping the day job”.
Again, when Richard M. Stallman was once asked how might programmers earn a
living if all software was free, he replied with words to the effect that he
had always considered waiting tables to be fine and noble practice. Audiences
at the time jeered his words: but stayed to marvel as RMS demonstraterd
Meta-X-silver-service, an Emacs keyboard macro that mystically served a fine
Filet Mignon Garnished with Scallops, Asparagus Spears & Sauce Bearnaise
service to a random stranger, who then provided Mr Stallman with a
fine, fine tip.

Finally, there’s the Street Performer Protocol, the system devised by John
Kelsey and Bruce Schneier for funding creative projects in the absence of
traditional intellectual property rights. In this system, a work such as a
novel or piece of software is effectively “ransomed” – given to a publisher
with the understanding that it would be released to the wider public when, and
only when, they pay a certain amount.

The Street Performer Protocol was first suggested in 1999, but has had
surprisingly little take-up. In fact, was originally devised in early 1972,
but the authors refused to publish it until they were given a million dollars
and a plane to Rio de Janeiro. Negotiations with the public at large stalled
until, in the desperate act which gave the protocol its name, Schneier and
Kelsey travelled to the Edinburgh Fringe and took hostage over thirty clowns,
mimes and magicians who they found performing outside Waverley Station.

They later released a cryptographically-signed note declaring that unless a
prominent academic journal picked up their financing proposal, they would
utterly neglect to kill a street performer on the hour, every hour.

Within fifteen minutes, the people of Edinburgh had paid First Monday, an
online journal, close to five thousand dollars to publish the entire work.
Schneier and Kelsey were remunerated, a publisher provided with their
financial model, and Edinburgh was rid of pantaloon-wearing drama students

Such innovative and creative solutions are badly needed if we are to truly
create a world in which programmers can work on improving Linux full-time
while still being able afford to feed their children – children who will grow
up knowing a clown-free world. The Street Performer Protocol is available at: and my Paypal account is I’ll start with the jugglers in Cambridge’s town center.

4 Responses to “hacking for coins”

  1. Ciaran Says:

    Bah. I was in Cambridge recently and the jugglers were still there.

  2. Dave Green Says:

    …just in case anyone misses the allusion, the title’s presumably a reference to:
    Wanking For Coins
    “Apocalyptic fun as Rowland Rivron tours the seedy backstreets of London’s West End persuading the homeless to commit acts of self-degradation in exchange for pennies.”

  3. Danny O'Brien Says:

    AHA! I knew the obscure references would bring you out eventually!

  4. The Dave Green Extended Project Says:

    “medieval surfdom”

    and then, Danny’s transition into Yankhood was completed.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.