Ownership Rights and Reputation Incentives

We are now in a position to pull together the previous analyses into a coherent account of hacker ownership customs. We understand the yield from homesteading the noosphere now; it is peer repute in the gift culture of hackers, with all the secondary gains and side effects that implies.

From this understanding, we can analyze the Lockean property customs of hackerdom as a means of maximizing reputation incentives; of ensuring that peer credit goes where it is due and does not go where it is not due.

The three taboos we observed above make perfect sense under this analysis. One's reputation can suffer unfairly if someone else misappropriates or mangles one's work; these taboos (and related customs) attempt to prevent this from happening. (Or, to put it more pragmatically, hackers generally refrain from forking or rogue-patching others' projects in order to be able to deny legitimacy to the same behavior practiced against themselves.)

Of course, forking a project or distributing rogue patches for it also directly attacks the reputation of the original developer's group. If I fork or rogue-patch your project, I am saying: "you made a wrong decision by failing to take the project where I am taking it"; and anyone who uses my forked variation is endorsing this challenge. But this in itself would be a fair challenge, albeit extreme; it's the sharpest end of peer review. It's therefore not sufficient in itself to account for the taboos, though it doubtless contributes force to them.

All three taboo behaviors inflict global harm on the open-source community as well as local harm on the victim(s). Implicitly they damage the entire community by decreasing each potential contributor's perceived likelihood that gift/productive behavior will be rewarded.

It's important to note that there are alternate candidate explanations for two of these three taboos.

First, hackers often explain their antipathy to forking projects by bemoaning the wasteful duplication of work it would imply as the child products evolve on more-or-less parallel courses into the future. They may also observe that forking tends to split the co-developer community, leaving both child projects with fewer brains to use than the parent.

A respondent has pointed out that it is unusual for more than one offspring of a fork to survive with significant `market share' into the long term. This strengthens the incentives for all parties to cooperate and avoid forking, because it's hard to know in advance who will be on the losing side and see a lot of their work either disappear entirely or languish in obscurity.

It has also been pointed out that the simple fact that forks are likely to produce contention and dispute is enough to motivate social pressure against them. Contention and dispute disrupt the teamwork that is necessary for each individual contributor to reach his or her goals.

Dislike of rogue patches is often explained by the objection that they can create compatibility problems between the daughter versions, complicate bug-tracking enormously, and inflict work on maintainers who have quite enough to do catching their own mistakes.

There is considerable truth to these explanations, and they certainly do their bit to reinforce the Lockean logic of ownership. But while intellectually attractive, they fail to explain why so much emotion and territoriality gets displayed on the infrequent occasions that the taboos get bent or broken—not just by the injured parties, but by bystanders and observers who often react quite harshly. Cold-blooded concerns about duplication of work and maintainance hassles simply do not sufficiently explain the observed behavior.

Then, too, there is the third taboo. It's hard to see how anything but the reputation-game analysis can explain this. The fact that this taboo is seldom analyzed much more deeply than ``It wouldn't be fair'' is revealing in its own way, as we shall see in the next section.