Fallacy of value of work

One thing that constantly pops up in copyright discussions is that "people must be paid for their work." While I appreciate the sentiment, this is wrong and harmful. The correct form should be "People must be able to ask for money for the work they perform. It must then be equally possible for the employer to say no."

Now, this sounds awfully freemarketlibertarian, yes. However, that's not where I'm aiming at. I recently came across a discussion (in Finnish) where a teacher voices a strong concern about the availability of teaching material devaluing the work of teachers - when material is available for free online, why should the school pay the teacher for his/her time to make material? I know a lot of people - especially computer savvy people who are familiar with Open Source - like to laugh at this, but in fact I think this is a real fear which shouldn't really be dismissed like that.

The underlying problem is quite well defined by Cory Doctorow in this piece on the Guardian: "Just because something has value doesn't mean it has a price." (Seriously, read it. Understand it. Become a better person by internalizing it, even if you disagreed with it.)

The feelings that teachers are going through are nothing new - in fact, the almost exact same fears were voiced when Richard Stallman started working on free software back in 19omnomnom. "Who will pay for my time if I create something which is free?" "Why would I spend hours on something I'm not paid to do?" "By hoarding information I become important and cannot be fired." The answer to all of these questions turned out to be "It'll be okay." Now, I don't know enough about teaching, but I can answer how it all turned out in my profession:

"Who will pay for my time if I create something which is free?"

Everyone. Many people who contribute to projects in Apache or Github or Linux or any of the zillions of other open and free source projects are either hard-core programmers or will be shortly. There's nothing that improves your skill like public review, and good Github or Stack Overflow account is a sure-fire way to get yourself hired.

Also, since the freely available software is so good these days, many companies are actively paying their programmers to participate in these projects, because they realize one truth:

If I put in an hour of my time, and 99 other people do the same, each of us gets 100 hours done for the price of one hour.

"Why would I spend hours on something I'm not paid to do?"

Ward Cunningham, the man who invented wikis, told me once (paraphrasing from memory): "I was showing my wiki to a lot of people. Everyone, who asked 'why should I contribute, what's in in for me' didn't get it. It's not about 'me'. It's about 'us'. The right question is 'what's in it for us'."

Turns out people have a lot of motivations to distribute their work freely. Some people want comments from colleagues. Some people use it as a way of advanced backup. Some people just think it's easier to manage in public (because over the years, we programmers have honed some of our tools to work much better on the internet than on our desktops). For some, it's an ideology. Some people want to pay back for all the stuff they've received. For some, it's just a hobby and they like the interaction with others. Some aspire for fame and greatness. Many reasons, but all benefit the same.

"By hoarding information I become important and cannot be fired."

This is the fear, isn't it. Well, turns out that this is rarely true. If you become a liability to your employer, you will go, no matter what you know. 'cos even if you can't, your boss can look further ahead than you, and she/he should be able to see what is good for the company in the long run. Maybe they'll hurt for a few months after you go, but really, nobody is irreplaceable.

Sharing won't make it easier for you keep your job either. But, it does protect you in two, very important ways: first, if you do a good job, all of it will be visible. And that means that getting a new job is a lot easier - if you're good and can show the code, you're probably hired the next day. Second, you get to keep the stuff you worked on. In many companies, once you go, you lose access to all the work you did and have to replicate many things in the next place. Not so with open source - anything you contributed is available there: you can keep working on it, apply what you learned at the company, and continue to do so in the next place.

Now, especially when it comes to education, I strongly believe that openness is the way to go. Teaching and research are two sides of the same coin. We wouldn't be where we are now if the alchemists hadn't put aside their secret tomes and agreed to share their research with each other. Newton said: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." If there's a group of people who should really, really appreciate this, it's teachers.


To rephrase a point: Everyone helps other people without demanding compensation. Doctors help others and their colleagues. IT pros will reinstall Windows XP to your old laptop once a year and not mention that they normally get paid $150 an hour. Scientists take it all out and have incredible public fights about each other's work. Cooks cook for others too, and not conjure a credit card reader after a few friends come over.

We all share what we know, because that's what decent people do. Especially the ones who love what they do.

--JanneJalkanen, 15-Jan-2013

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"Main_blogentry_150113_1" last changed on 15-Jan-2013 19:40:57 EET by JanneJalkanen.