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June 20, 2003

OPEN SOURCE....Kieran Healy has an interesting post about the Open Source movement and asks what I think is the key question: why do people volunteer to work on Open Source projects for free?

The best predictor of whether you’ve volunteered time or money recently is whether you’ve been asked. So we need to know much more about the organizational side. Volunteerism has been a constant in the software/hacker community since its inception, yet the open-source explosion is a comparatively recent affair. My intuition is that the real causal traction is in social organization or institutions, not individual motives. Interestingly, this view is supported by some of the people involved in the comunity. Jeff Bates, of OSDN, was a commenter on the last session and said he wanted to know how a project aggregates people. This seems like exactly the right question to me.

I've been a skeptic of Open Source for a long time, and it's not because I have anything against Linux. My problem is more fundamental: how do you keep these projects going? To pick a specific example, what happens to Linux when Linus Torvalds gets bored with it?

Well, who knows? Maybe somebody will pick it up, and maybe Linux will do fine. After all, the internet is mostly run by volunteers and it's doing OK.

But how many other successful Open source projects will there be? How many projects are there where someone will become obsessed enough with the idea to do all the organizing? And how many high quality coders are there who are willing to get talked into participating?

I suspect the answer is: very few. So maybe Linux and a few other Open Source projects will be successful — although even that's a stretch in the long run — but there aren't enough organizers and volunteers around to make a dent in the other 99.9% of software that's equally critical but much less cool. That includes the vast majority of extremely dull business software that's the real linchpin of the sofware industry.

In Kieran's comments, Mary Kay Kare analogizes Open Source to the volunteerism that characterizes the science fiction fan community. It's an intriguing comparison, but let's face it: volunteerism doesn't have a great track record competing with profit-motivated business concerns. I suspect that when all is said and done, the invisible hand will beat out the open source with hardly a fight.

Posted by Kevin Drum at June 20, 2003 09:58 AM | TrackBack


Well, one thing is that Open Source is not necessarily free.

There's a lot of Open Source, and even GPL'd infrastructure, as I understand it (and I'm someone who paid $50 for an easy linux install), that for-profit companies build on top of. Those companies charge for their additional work, but at the same time they have a stake in making sure that what they're building on top of works well.

Posted by: claxton6 at June 20, 2003 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

"After all, the internet is mostly run by volunteers and it's doing OK."

Actually, it's funded and run by huge corporations and governments.


Posted by: Kynn at June 20, 2003 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

To pick a specific example, what happens to Linux when Linus Torvalds gets bored with it?

Actually, there are several successful open source projects which have no strong individual leader. Perhaps the most successful of which is the Apache webserver, which runs, amoung other things, this very website.

Or FreeBSD, which also does quite well with a group leading it's direction. They survived Jordan Hubbard going to work for Apple with no real problems.

Linus may get all the media attention, but there are plenty of others, like Alan Cox, who can keep the project going for years. Especially with companies like IBM having a vested interest in Linux development.

Posted by: aelph at June 20, 2003 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Another item is that if a package is useful to a company but needs a few more features, they may add those features and pass them back to the community. That way both parties get a benefit.

There's certainly a possibility that changes won't be released back (unless licensing requires it, and sometimes not then), but most folks who are going to suggest using an open source project as a base are going to be the same ones who push to release code back to the community - if you're not a fan of open source, you simply won't suggest using it it in the first place.

Posted by: Alan at June 20, 2003 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

One driving reason to work on an open source project is to (a) popularize a platform to do something that's pretty well understood (like operating systems, web servers, etc) and (b) make a living both supporting this platform and adding features.

An open source platform with a decent following is in some ways preferable to a proprietary solution put out by a small company because being GPL'd, you've got code escrow and a pool of people who can support the product -- which you don't have if the vendor goes out of business.

Posted by: TonyClifton at June 20, 2003 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

Well, is running on an open source Web server...

I'd agree that open source coders gravitate towards a certain type of project. You won't see a good open source project management tool any time soon. This is partially because coders dislike project management tools, and partially because UI experts aren't drawn towards open source.

On the other hand, open source people will write plumbing tools like the HTTP server you're using -- because people will build tools they want to use. Open source people will write compilers, for the same reason.

Consider this. It's not at all surprising to us that a good craftsman will build some of his or her own tools. Nah, he won't forge his own hammer, but he'll work on getting the grip just right.

Or, in another field, it's not surprising that car enthusiasts rebuild their own engines with pretty good results.

The thing about code is this: when you build your own tool, it's really easy to share that tool with others. There's no barrier to that. If you rebuild an engine, you can't make that engine instantly available to other car enthusiasts. I think that simple fact makes a big difference.

In other words, you just don't need as many volunteers and organizers as you might think, because the economic cost of working on open source isn't significantly higher than the economic cost of doing the code work you might well do anyway.

Posted by: Bryant at June 20, 2003 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

There are many, many, many open source projects that just sort of petered out or were stillborn. You can find a lot of them at sourceforge. Often, it seems like someone started a sourceforge project on a whim, with an idea they thought was cool, and maybe some initial code, but that's as far as it gets.

The major, successful projects like Linux and Apache have probably reached the 'too big to fail' stage. They're too important and too useful - there's more likely to be people interested and able to fix bugs and add new features they want.

Posted by: Jon H at June 20, 2003 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

That includes the vast majority of extremely dull business software that's the real linchpin of the sofware industry.

This is an oft-made point, but it is rather a subjective matter. From a layperson's point of view, compilers, debuggers and text-based editors are (with some justification) about as dull as you can get. Yet GNU has developed these and more.

My impression is it is not the genre of the software that makes it dull. Presentation managers, spreadsheets, and databases can all be interesting ... the dullness comes in at the maintenance end. There's no glory in spending your days fixing someone else's bugs.

Posted by: Gautam Vallabha at June 20, 2003 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

From someone who's an active observer and user of (though rarely a contributor to) open source projects, it sounds like you are making a lot of assumptions here. First off, I don't know where you got the impression that open source projects such as Linux are exclusively run on unpaid volunteer labor. IBM and RedHat are just a couple of the big companies who have paid staff contributing to the project. Transmeta, the company which employs Linus, is also fully aware of how much of his time he spends on Linux. These companies all benefit from Linux and they have a financial interest in keeping the project moving. Many other large projects work the same way.

As for "what happens when Linus Torvalds gets bored of it," well, the licensing laws of Linux stipulate that he has no right to stop anybody from picking right up where he left off, and trust me, there are literally thousands of people who would jump at the chance. The most he could do is stop them from using the name Linux, which he does own.

Especially strange to me is "how many high-quality coders are willing to get talked into participating?" Well, my impression is that if you have to -talk them into it- then your project is dead. If it's good, they will show up themselves. And even if the project has been abandoned, it doesn't go away; many fine programs have been abandoned for lack of interest, then picked up by someone who does have interest. This is the survival-of-the-fittest aspect of open source software.

But the point is, you're seriously underestimating the available labor pool for this stuff. The reason this seems especially ironic is that you are basically participating in an "open source" project right now -- open source journalism. You're not getting paid, except in exposure and kudos. But you do it anyway, and a lot of other people do. Is professional journalism better? Well, some of it is, but not a soul in the blogosphere would say that it's -all- better, or better for every purpose.

Perhaps the problem is that you're mistaking programming for something that people don't want to do. If accountants didn't get paid, no accounting would get done. If artists didn't get paid, though, there would still be plenty of art. For open source programmers, code is art.

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

I believe the Open source community is already at critical mass to become self-sustaining

1. Look for example at the money Microsoft now spends attempting to persuade people ( and the governments of poorer countries particularly) that Open source software is a bad idea.

2. It is now possible for the average small software house to deliver successful, commercial applications based on open source software. Moving from expensive proprietary platforms has breathed new life into many software organizations.

3. The open source development teams are getting older - I'm in my 40's now and I've been contributing to the Open Source community for 10 or so years. Its a level of maturity that balances the enthusiasm of the younger code hackers with the ability to work for 48 hours non-stop.

4. If you want to see the number and breadth of Open source projects, check out SourceForge

Posted by: Mark at June 20, 2003 10:21 AM | PERMALINK
Well, my impression is that if you have to -talk them into it- then your project is dead. If it's good, they will show up themselves.

I think this gets to Kieran Healy's original point, which is that people -don't- just show up. They may not have to be really talked into it, but there does have to be some sort of recruitment effort.

(Of course, I'm totally into Kieran's point, because I'm reading Bowling Alone right now, so I am no way either knowledgeable or neutral.)

Posted by: claxton6 at June 20, 2003 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, just to riff off Gautam's very good point. He's right: there are high-quality open source compilers, databases, and spreadsheets, and I know there's financial software out there that's probably usable. And it's true that the people who wrote these things probably loved to write them. And it's also true that fixing bugs is the unrewarding drudge work -- this is another major strength in open source software. There might be only a few people doing the core development, adding features and such, but there are lots and lots of people who can fix simple bugs. I've submitted a number of patches to projects I use. Can you do that with Microsoft? No you can't, and it's not because they don't have bugs. In general bugs in free software are fixed much faster and more transparently than commercial software.

To continue my 'open source journalism' analogy, how likely do you think it is that I could write this stuff to an NYT columnist, and he would read it, and possibly even post a followup? About nil, I'd think.

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

With no offense intended, Kevin, I wish you would take the same advice with Open Source as you seem to have taken with regards to Iran.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness at June 20, 2003 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

Oh.. one thing I forgot, again, to put in my last post. Yes, there are some things which open source consistently fails at, in case I seem too much like an evangelist. That's polish -- a pretty interface, ease of use and installation, documentation. It's gotten better over the years, but if you aren't confident in your computing skills and able to use things without a GUI, or if you rely too heavily on a handholding manual (like for MS products), you'll probably see some weaknesses.

I think Healy is dead wrong that you won't get contributions without actively recruiting volunteers, unless he has a screwy definition of "recruiting." All the project has to do is be out there, and people will find it, use it, and contribute if they have something to add. But when it comes to adding polish, or writing docs? Yeah, you probably need to ask someone to do that. They'll only contribute things which make it more useful to them (which often does include FAQs, but not usually robust documentation).

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

... quoth the man who writes high-quality political commentary for free.

Posted by: ByWord at June 20, 2003 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

This is the sort of entry that really drives home to me how little of the tech world is visible to people outside the tech community. To a working programmer, the question "Is open source viable?" is about as relevant and debatable as "Do you think these horseless carriages have any future?"

Open source products I've used to develop software for paying companies include: Linux, Apache, Tomcat, Ant, NetBeans, Xalan, FOP, JUnit, Nant, NUnit, Struts, Eclipse, CVS, Postgres, MySQL, Perl, and probably a half dozen others I'm forgetting at the moment.

More than likely, those product names mean nothing to you; that's kinda my point -- you're only seeing the tip of the open-source iceberg. To a working programmer in 2003, a world without plentiful open source software is a horrid, dystopian nightmare. Open source is going to continue to exist because it's too damn useful to go away.

Besides, open source software has existed as a movement for about 20 years now, and it's only gotten bigger over time; in the scale of computing, that's not a short term trend -- nor is it one that shows any sign of reversing.

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski at June 20, 2003 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

"Scratching an itch" is possibly the most important phrase in the free software movement. It's why projects get started, and it's why the interesting projects will continue past the point where they depend on one person.

Most free software projects start with "I wish I had a program that did this" or "Wouldn't it be cool if there was a program that did that?". That's all the motivation the free software coders want or need.

Once the program does what the author wants, maybe they stop (or maybe they continue because they like the peer congratulations, or the prestige) If they do stop, it only takes one person who thinks "I wish this program also did this", and they can add it. There are millions of people who can code out there, and hey - it's not that hard. I know people who learned to code purely to add stuff to the open source game Angband. Any useful and interesting program will have people willing to work on it once it has a critical mass of users.

The major problem is finding people to do the boring, uncelebrated grunt work - writing documentation. The quality of major free software is amazing. The quality of the free docs not nearly so. It's not that surprising that O'Reilly are one of the more successful companies dealing with free software - they publish the manuals and textbooks you often need to use
it :)

Posted by: Keith at June 20, 2003 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

To continue Neil's point:

I think blogging is a good analogy to open-source. There are the traditional journalists who get paid to report and analyze the news, and there are bloggers who do it because ... they are interested in the material, they like doing it, and they like the attention. The Internet has lowered the barriers for publication, just as it has lowered the barriers for cooperation among open-source coders.

Kevin's point seems much weaker if we substitute blogging for open-source:
"So maybe InstaPundit and Calpundit and other projects will be successful — although even that's a stretch in the long run — but there aren't enough organizers and volunteers around to make a dent in the other 99.9% of the news that's equally critical.
I suspect that when all is said and done, the invisible hand will beat out blogging with hardly a fight."

Posted by: Gautam Vallabha at June 20, 2003 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

Mike, it's misleading to say that open source software has existed "as a movement" for only 20 years. It's true.. but it distracts from the truth that the concept of open-source software has been around a lot longer than the concept of proprietary software.

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

Neil, excellent point about the interface. Recruiting coders never seems to be much of a problem with a popular open source project, but they rarely try to recruit designers or human interface people (much less tech or copy writers). And when they do, they seem all too happy to accept icons and widgets but balk at taking architecture advice from non-coders.

Posted by: Harry Tuttle at June 20, 2003 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, and . . .

To pick a specific example, what happens to Linux when Linus Torvalds gets bored with it?

Well, who knows?

. . . you're showing your ignorance of the subject matter here. The "succession" has been debated many times. There are 3 or 4 people who you would expect to be in the running, and maybe Linus will annoint one of them - but Linux development *will* continue whatever, because it's a multi-billion dollar industry now. The "succession" is *always* on the table, because at any time the kernel development could be forked. It's the ultimate free-market - Linus is top-dog because everyone agrees he's top dog. There's no contractual obligation to him, he just is. If he got hit by a bus, the community will rally behind someone else, probably Alan Cox, and coding will continue.

Posted by: Keith at June 20, 2003 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Kenneth: the difference between software and Iran is that I've worked in the software industry for 20 years. I know a lot about it.

Lots of good comments here, and I agree with many of them. I'm not suggesting that Open Source is completely hopeless, just that I'm skeptical of how far it will spread.

Kynn: Yeah, sloppy wording. The administration is mostly volunteer, and a lot of the underlying code is written by volunteers. That's all I meant.

Tony: Agreed. I've had lots of experience being forced to buy software from small companies, and the risk is indeed quite high.

Gautam: I was thinking more of things like ERP software, not tools. Programmers love mucking around with tools, but less so with big mainframe packages. And I agree about maintenance: it accounts for 90% of software development, and most programmers don't like it much.

The analogy to blogging is probably pretty good, but I don't think it's favorable to Open Source. Yeah, I write for free, but I'm just spouting opinions. If you want real news, you still have to buy it somewhere and blogging hasn't changed that a bit.

I should make clear that I'm not opposed to Open Source, and I agree that it's of considerable use to software professionals (Mike's point). I just think it's been way overhyped, much like dotcoms were a few years ago, and needs a reality check.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at June 20, 2003 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Open source software and standards are so robust, pervasive, transparent, useful, and comprehensive, that non-technical people don't even realize they use them extensively on a day-to-day basis every time they sit down to use the Internet.

And then they ask whether or not open software is relevant.

There is no debate here. Open source is vital to the continued progression of the software industry, and that won't change for a long, long time.

Posted by: mfh at June 20, 2003 11:01 AM | PERMALINK


I think you need more background here.

Regarding the volunteerism, 80-90% of the work on a given project is done by a small "core" group of 10-20 people. The remaining 10-20% are small enhancements contributed by literally thousands of people whose involvement ends there.

The participation is rational, and even self-interested. The thousands of bug-fixers' work is rational, because these people fix a bug when it gets in their way, and contributing it doesn't cost anything, and increases the amount of time available for the core group to work on serious improvements.

The core group usually starts working on the software to solve a need that they themselves have, and it may be rational to give away your work and add features you don't yourself need to increase the size of the network of users/developers which will reduce your workload.

Now, the lack of market incentives mean that the developers will tend to develop whatever provides value for the developers and not the market. You noticed how I used the term "users/developers." This is the "sophisticated user bias": open source software is rarely useful to anyone who doesn't know how to fix bugs themselves.

As such, it tends to be successful in server markets, on applications run by sophisticated admins for users who don't need to set it up or know how it works. I might add, that by examining your server headers, that is running Apache 1.3.27 on Unix, and we all know that Movable Type is written in Perl. So, we wouldn't be having this conversation without open source software.

Posted by: taktile at June 20, 2003 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin: Sorry; from the blithe way with which you made several errors or statements of ignorance, it seemed that you didn't know a lot about Open Source at all.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness at June 20, 2003 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

I was thinking more of things like ERP software, not tools.

Heh.. That's one of the examples I always use about what open source software likely won't do, for the exact reason that it's not something that "the community" will find all that interesting.

Plus, since I work for a company that's in this market, I know that the complexity of ERP is such that you really can't develop it without people who understand business processes well, which is a background your average CS/Linux geek doesn't have, nor would likely care to have it.

From my perspective as a systems admin though, it's great. I can keep IT costs low by using open source solutions that work just as well or better than expensive commerical alternatives.

Posted by: aelph at June 20, 2003 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, have you read Eric S. Raymond's The Magic Cauldron? He has some interesting comments on how writing open-source software can be (and has been) economically viable, as well as what kinds of situations make it not viable.

If you don't want to read the whole essay, this section has the most important points.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at June 20, 2003 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

I got off point earlier. My main point is: Why would the "invisible hand" (by which you presumably mean corporations) even try competing with open source, generally? Most open source products are in commodity markets where there's no money to be made unless you're a monopolist (read: Microsoft).

If you're developing web browsers, operating systems, programming languages... why would you bother writing one from scratch, when you can just base your code off the large base of existing open-source software (as Apple did with MacOS X and its Safari browser)? And if you are going to put a commercial entry into a mostly-commodified space with free entrants, what makes you think you're going to be anywhere near good enough to get people to pay?

The reality is, there's very little space for a commercial company to swoop in and make money, and lots of incentive for people to use the open source systems, and therefore lots of incentive for somebody to develop and enhance those systems to make some profit at the edges.

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski at June 20, 2003 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

The alternative to open-source is buying a product. With this purchase, the purchaser will get support and reliability. Right?

I’m not so sure . . .

Do you get better support from the vendor or from a Google search?

The reliability of commercial software is getting better but it is still quite poor in my opinion. No-frills open-source is, in many cases, more reliable.

Many vendors obsolete their products -- rendering them unsupported after a few years. So the a purchaser must re-purchase the same product, re-integrate, and re-test at the whim the vendor product's life-cycle.

As IT managers become frustrated with expensive and problematic vendor solutions, they are moving away from vendors and incorporating more and more open-source solutions.

Posted by: David at June 20, 2003 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Open Source, to be blunt, is everything. Given the previous examples, of how we use it day to day, we couldn't do without it.

Why do people volunteer for it? Among coding circles, one can get much respect for doing a sweet piece of code. Real respect, which means as much to money as some people. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a lot of principle in it, especially with the GPL, looking for freedom.

And Kevin, I think you way underestimate the importance of the Blogosphere. What this is to me, is a way to filter stories and opinions down to basic levels. As well, it's a way to keep my eye on all the stories without having to spend my life doing it.

I belive strongly in memes and momentum. Blogs deal with the first, and open source deals with the second. I believe that both offer the best hope we have against corporate "lock-in", which in reality is not that far off.

And on the public image on Open Source? Wait 5 years when Linux has 25% of desktops. And 10 years when it has 80%. And the #2. will also be open source. Both MS and Apple have too much interest in crippleware, to match OS in quality in the long-run. (Remember that the moment that they release a definitive version, their business model is over, in fact, MS has done that with Windows 2000/XP...Longhorn is going to be a monumental flop.)

Posted by: Glenn at June 20, 2003 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

My company uses Linux now. ( if anyone cares). The last OS that we used for our embedded systems was made by a company that was swallowed up and disappeared off the face of the earth.

Because we use Linux, I don't have to worry about companies going *poof* and leaving me holding the bag.

Even then, before that happened the vendor didn't care about us. Not one bit. Of course, since we're a small company we couldn't exert any force to make them fix the bugs that we all knew were in their product.

Other things about Linux -- who said these people are volunteers? Most all of the developers are getting a paycheck from something or another. Some of them work for Linux companies, others of them work for companies that is using Linux as a platform, and any code that is created is a "byproduct" of what they really want to do.

What Linux really does is create a "shared development group" between people at different companies. Because no one company has more influence than the other and because we have the Internet, its very easy for a development group to consist of coders in different places working for different companies to all collaborate on the same project.

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

Working in the software industry for years, surely you've met programmers? Okay, the johnny-come-lately former International Studies people who jumped into the money pile during the dot com boom might not care about open source, but many, many, many programmers who spent their teenage years coding machine language and went to college for Computer Science and ended up working in the field are amazingly passionate about the underlying concepts of open source. I'd even go so far as to call their devotion religious. Witness Richard Stallman.

And given the fact that Apache is the most popular web server in the world, and is a far superior product to anything Mega$loth has been able to proudce thus far, and your own site runs on it, your argument seems silly.

Posted by: nate-dogg at June 20, 2003 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

The best analogy may not be blogging, but writing poetry. Why in the world would anyone do that? Because the people who do it love it. And they love getting even a little bit of affirmation when someone likes something they've made. And other poets will read and critique your poetry if you read theirs. Looking at this as a purely economic calculation misses the creativity and community programmers really enjoy (Kieran recognizes this in his post "the impulse to treat co-operation and volunteering as a weird social anomaly has its pathological side.")

And I'm not so sure about blogging and news being so distinct. The other day, someone emailed me to say that there was a lot more to the story of something I'd linked about Microsoft and spam legislation. So I picked up the phone. I talked to someone in a state Attorney General's office, a State Senate Advisor in another state, and a senior MS VP. They were all willing to talk (some for attribution, some not). I told them I was a blogger and I wanted to hear their side of the story. I wrote it up and posted it. That's news.

Posted by: ogged at June 20, 2003 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

It seems that Kevin basically admitted to making an overbroad statement. Sure, the things that a lot of people think of as "software" will never be as good in open source. Video games.. financial suites.. any software that'll be user-friendly for your grandma.. open source is not the ideal model for these. But this is really a pretty small subset of the software out there, I suspect.

So maybe this was a "reality check," but I think it actually moves the debate farther from reality, this being the cynical year of 2003, where Linux is an Enemy of Intellectual Property Laws, and not the Savior of the New Economy Which Will Make Us All Rich. If you think your comments only apply in a certain context, why not limit them to that context?

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 01:36 PM | PERMALINK

One thing about Open Source, is that once it's written, and out in the public domain, it stays out there, and can be picked up and improved upon by anybody should the occasion arise. It does not die with a company or a project; it lives on.

This suits some types of very basic software very well. Moreover, once you've done, say, a C compiler, it's basically done forever, whence the ubiquitousness of gcc. Likewise the Linux kernel itself does not have to be improved forever to be useful and competitive -- though some add on applications and UI will require further work.

There certainly are a highly finite number of competent developers willing to put in their time on an open source project, and so only a highly finite number of Open source projects can turn out well. Yet, clearly, Linux is among them, as is Gnu C.

Posted by: frankly0 at June 20, 2003 02:18 PM | PERMALINK

You need to go read Brad DeLong on Open Source. (See the link above) He gives a really good explanation from an economic point of view of why Open Source works. Basically, the argument boils down to two things: 1. The cost of maintaining an Open Source project is very low. You really just need a computer and an internet connection. 2. Distribution costs nothing. In fact, the more people who actually bother to use the product, the more likely it is that one of them will actually contribute.
If you think about it, blogging works in much the same way. It's basically free to start a blog, and the more people who read a blog, the more like ly they are to depend on and contribute to said blog. I'm sure you can relate to this.

Posted by: Jeff at June 20, 2003 02:26 PM | PERMALINK

I'll be honest - there's one thing that makes me wonder if open source will be viable, and it's something that all of you tend to miss:

If open source is the end all and be all of software development, then why does the movement feel the need to convert at knifepoint?

I wonder how many of you have taken the time to ever read the GNU Public Licence (GPL)? If you did, you would realize how wrong it is. First, the GPL is viral. What that means it that if you were to use code from a GPL program in your program, you don't get a choice about what licence you use - your program is GPL code. Why do you think that bison (a GPL parser generator) uses a modified version of the GPL? Because under the standard licence, any parser made by bison would immediately be under the GPL, and so would any program using that parser. There would be no commercial viability for a tool that makes anything it is used on governed by the GPL.

The other major problem with the GPL is that the creator loses any distribution rights whatsoever. Yes, I know the licence says that the creator may set any price that they wish. But the GPL also gives the end user the same rights. With peer to peer file sharing networks the way they are now, a GPL program that was even moderately popular - a program that could make the programmer a moderate living if he controlled distribution rights - would be obtained for free, not bought. The programmer also has no control over how his project is used - something that has probably killed quite a few projects. (Read up on the bnetd issue from a year ago - Blizzard and Vivendi would most likely have been willing to let bnetd sail under their radar had it not been for the fact that a splinter group made a variant that would allow the online play of the beta of Warcraft III - a splinter formed because the core bnetd devs chose not to add that functionality for that reason.)

It's interesting how much Stallman pushes to have people accept that Linux is under the GPL - something that is considered to this day to be a fringe notion. And I wonder exactly where open source would be today if it wasn't for the GPL. The GPL is the one thing that makes me shy away from open source, considering how much of open source is under the GPL.

Posted by: AngelKnight at June 20, 2003 02:31 PM | PERMALINK

Well, GPL and Open Source are two different things. BSD is and Open Source project but is not GPL'd. Given that, though, GPL is a very useful device for ensuring that Open Source projects stay Open Source. Many of the people who contribute to Open Source projects wouldn't contribute if they knew that their code would be snapped up and closed off by someone else. When that happens, the changes to that code are lost forever. GPL is a great way to ensure that you are contributing code to everyone rather than someone's pocketbook.

Posted by: Jeff at June 20, 2003 02:48 PM | PERMALINK

If you don't like the GPL, then don't use any GPLed code in your program. Its that simple. Developing on Linux doesn't mean that all your source code has to be GPLed by any means at all. All the important libraries are LGPLed, which means its very possible to write all the code you want for Linux and keep the source to yourself if thats what you desire. No one is holding you at knife point and making you do anything.

The GPL isn't wrong at all. Some people would say that asking money for software (which has no physical form at all) is wrong. Its just a difference of opinion, and if you want to write some software, go right ahead and give it any license you want.

Think of it as the "cost" of open-source.

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 02:49 PM | PERMALINK

I note that neither of you had anything to say regarding the modified GPL that GNU uses for bison. To me that says more than all the speeches about how wrong it is for software to be sold - if they really believed that, then why change the bison GPL?

To me, the argument that "open source must stay open source" rings hollow. If someone is willing to donate his code to open source, then why should he have the right to force everyone else to keep their software open? If I give you a gift, then dictate how it must be used, is that really right? Yes, I do understand that open source and the GPL are separate - yet they are very much intertwined. If I am not mistaken, all code on Sourceforge must be under the GPL, and the majority of open source projects are GPL-based. GPL has had much of an influence on open source software.

The largest problem I have with the GPL is that it (in my view) destroys the ability of the programmer to control his creation, and reduces him to a mechanic, making his money on maintaining and modifying his creations. And it forces programmers to abide by it to gain access to code that was supposedly released to be used by all.

Posted by: AngelKnight2780 at June 20, 2003 03:09 PM | PERMALINK

Like Alex said, if you don't like the GPL, don't use it. What I meant when I said "Open Source projects stay Open Source" was that if I personally started an open source project, I'd like to see that my project remained accessible no matter who contributed. I don't have anything against other projects that don't use the GPL. It's just my preference

Posted by: Jeff at June 20, 2003 03:20 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff, you miss the point. I wouldn't use the GPL - if I have a choice. But the GPL doesn't give me that choice. If I use something under the GPL in my project, then I am bound to place my project under the GPL as well. And to me, that seems at odds with the concept of "software must be free". If you're going to allow free use of your code, then you have to be willing to accept that people may use it to their benefit. You could have had that benefit as well, but you chose not to.

Besides, I would have to say that once I'm assimilating your code into my project, it's not your project anymore. That is a far cry from someone adding on a patch or feature to your code (in which you should have the right to control how that code is used.)

Finally, I dislike the argument of "software should be free", for the simple reason that I think it devalues programmers.

Posted by: AngelKnight2780 at June 20, 2003 03:34 PM | PERMALINK

Because under the standard licence, any parser made by bison would immediately be under the GPL, and so would any program using that parser.

How do you figure this? If you write a C program from scratch and compile it with gcc, the GPL casts no shadow whatsoever over your executable. How is output from bison or yacc any different?

Posted by: son volt at June 20, 2003 03:42 PM | PERMALINK

If you don't want to have your code GPLed, don't use GPLed code. I mean, its that simple. You do have a choice.

You can write all the code you want for Linux and not have it GPLed. Heck, I'm doing it right now. The product that I linked above has all the code that makes my product special not under the GPL.

I'm using several LGPLed libraries, including GTK and CommonC++, but thats ok.

The software may be free, free in terms of money, not free in terms of "I can do anything I want with it." Free Beer/Free Speech yadayada.

If you want to use GPLed software in your code, go right ahead. The cost will be that you have to GPL your own software.

If you don't want to use GPLed software, go right ahead. The cost will be that you have to write more of your own code.

Its your choice.

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 03:44 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and the notion that attaching conditions to the receipt of a gift somehow violates the spirit of Christmas is hogwash. Large charitable contributions always have specific condtions attached.

Posted by: son volt at June 20, 2003 03:45 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm misreading the GPL, but my understanding is that if you use a bit of GPL'd code you only have to maintain the GPL on that bit of code that you used. For example, let's say you use and modify the Gnome libraries in your project, you wouldn't have to GPL your entire project, you'd just have to GPL the changes to the Gnome libraries.
I disagree that the GPL devalues programmers. I think it's a tool that facilitates collaberation between programmers. It ensures that your software remains in "The Commons" (I've been reading Lawrence Lessig).

Posted by: Jeff at June 20, 2003 03:47 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and code parsers generated by bison aren't under the GPL.


"As it happens, Bison can also be used to develop non-free programs. This is because we decided to explicitly permit the use of the Bison standard parser program in Bison output files without restriction. We made the decision because there were other tools comparable to Bison which already permitted use for non-free programs. "

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 03:48 PM | PERMALINK

I've probably still been a bit unclear about my main point. As I said, I have no problem with Linux or Apache or any of the other well known Open Source pieces of software.

But....I have a feeling that programmers and internet users might take a look at this stuff and not quite realize what a tiny segment of the overall software market it really is. I'm really not trying to belittle the stuff that exists and that's very good, but it's a pretty tiny proportion of all the software out there.

Programmers who do Open Source mostly do it because they like coding and this stuff is cool. But most Open Source software is also an example of pure coding, not coding that requires involvement with an outside world of industry knowledge, marketing compromises, UI development, etc. etc. This is the boring stuff that will likely never be touched by Open Source, and my guess is that it's at least 99% of the industry, maybe more.

That's all I really meant.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at June 20, 2003 04:10 PM | PERMALINK

Despite what AngelKnight says, I think Kevin's view of programming devalues programmers more than the GPL's does.

Posted by: neil at June 20, 2003 04:20 PM | PERMALINK

son volt: It's different in that the output of bison contains a rather large chunk of the bison code. When you use bison, you create rules that create refrence charts, and those charts are then placed into a template. That template is all GPL code.

And as a person, do you specifically give gifts to people with strings attached? I know I don't. These people are saying on one hand "here's this code, I give it to all to use", but then on the other hand places it under a contract that makes it so that using that code forces you to perpetuate their beliefs. Personally, I think that's rather underhanded.

Jeff: It's a matter of scale of use, and one that is in bitter contention. From what I've seen, however, the GPL is quite viral in it's application.

Alex: Thanks for restating what I had said before - that today, bison output is not governed by the standard GPL. I'd advise you to read up on it, though - the new licence was added relatively recently. Initial versions were under a standard GPL licence.

The use of libraries is different from incorporating code into your codebase, in that a library is invoked by the program. (That is, the library is installed separate from the program, and the program, when it needs that library, calls it.) If it wasn't that way, then such things as DirectX, OpenGL, and MFC would cause code made using them to either fall under their licences or be illegal.

I'd also advise you read up on Stallman (the guy who wrote the GPL) - when he says "free", he actually means "free to be used as you want", not "free in cost"(as I pointed out, the GPL specifically says you may charge for your product). Finally, the "well, you don't have to use GPL code" comment ignores the fact that most open source code is under the GPL.

My point is that if the concepts of open source are so great, then why is it that the community feels the need to propigate their beliefs via a licence that forces others under it? If your belief is so right, then why don't you let it compete in the marketplace fairly? (Again, the "you don't have to use the GPL" argument falls flat because of the large amount of GPL code.) I think that many open source zealots are afraid that if people are truly given freedom to use their code as they want, they'll take it and use it for their own gain.

That said, I wouldn't be against a licence that said that any modifications to the functionality of the code under it must be released openly. But I wouldn't have such a license be viral, nor would I have it cede distribution rights to the end user. Firmly put, I believe in intellectual property.

Finally, Kevin's right - most open source projects are done because someone thought "this would be cool." Even Linux started that way.

Posted by: AngelKnight2780 at June 20, 2003 04:55 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Open Source projects are a tiny, insignificant part of the vast subset of all software. However, are you including in that list all software over all time, such as Visicalc, or are you limiting yourself to the subset of all currently-in-use software?

If it's the latter case, I'll simply point out that while Open Source projects may be a tiny part of all projects, they're certainly not insignificant — especially when it comes to the products that run the Internet, such as Apache and Linux.

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness at June 20, 2003 05:51 PM | PERMALINK


If you believe in intellectual property, how can you argue that people who write GPL software shouldn't be allowed to license it as they see fit? How is that any different from GiantSoftCo slapping a EULA on a shrinkwrap box? How can you justify according the GPL less respect -- beyond that fact that the GPL's terms annoy you?

Frankly, when you say things like "I think that many open source zealots are afraid that if people are truly given freedom to use their code as they want, they'll take it and use it for their own gain", you just sound like you want a free lunch: you want to take someone else's work, violate the license they've chosen, and profit from it, giving them nothing in return. That's not a "free market," that's exploitation.

Posted by: jhp at June 20, 2003 05:52 PM | PERMALINK

Re Bison: "I'd advise you to read up on it, though - the new licence was added relatively recently. "

The GPL exception was added in version 1.24. That was in May 1995. Bison has been around since 1986, so I suppose you can term that as "relatively" recent, but for 8 years now Bison-created parsers haven't been encumbered by the license that you stated.

Kevin: Most software isn't sold for shrinkwrap, and you know it. Most software is written for internal use, and well, the GUI on some of that software isn't exactly designed by Apple.

Now, on the boring side though, there are open-source project designed to handle that. Take a look at the GNUe project at Other interesting projects include the open source CRM software at

Yeah, this stuff isn't flashy, but its out there.

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 06:33 PM | PERMALINK

It's true that the amount of software that is Open Source is tiny, if you measure lines of code across all software.

Open Source derives its power, though, from its tendency to focus on very basic functions in the cyberworld, such as OSes with Linux, Apache server software, etc. Happily, the very things many developers find most interesting are also most fundamental.

If Open Source weren't important, why would Microsoft spend so very much time and money dumping on it?

Posted by: frankly0 at June 20, 2003 06:41 PM | PERMALINK

Don't forget programming tools like Perl, Python, gcc, PHP, etc. Saying that only a tiny percentage of programming is open source is exactly the same as saying that only a tiny percentage of programming is copyrighted by Microsoft. In both cases, the entire platform, programming tools, and major applications are provided by the entity in question, either MS or the open source community.

Posted by: son volt at June 20, 2003 07:00 PM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised to see all the usual FUD about the GPL here of all places.

GPL forces people to do absolutely nothing. The author is free to license their code under it, or not, or release the code under more than one license. The user is free to accept the license, or not.

If the author wants to use the BSD license, or the Artistic License, or the X Consortium license, they can do that, too, and it's still free software.

The GPL doesn't apply to the use of a program; it applies to the distribution. If you want to link your own non-free code to GPL code, you can. You just can't give it to anyone else.

Posted by: Keith at June 20, 2003 07:36 PM | PERMALINK

You know, Eric S. Raymond, whose name is taken in vain above, is a science fiction fan too...


Posted by: Mary Kay at June 20, 2003 09:23 PM | PERMALINK

jhp: As I continue to state, my biggest issue with the GPL is that it is viral - that is, GPL code introduced into a project automatically forces the product of that project to be governed by the GPL as well. It would be like Ford having to put contract stipulations on a radio or drivetrain made by another manufacturer on the car as a whole. And you say I want a free lunch, I say that the advocates of the GPL want to force their ideology onto people and are afraid to let it compete freely. I've yet to hear a compelling reason for the GPL to be viral - many of the points for that. You say that a programmer should be allowed to use whatever licence they wish - the GPL DENIES the programmer that right by its very wording.

And as I pointed out, the person could have profited by their code, but chose to instead release it to all without charging. Last time I checked, exploitation requires a person to be forced into giving up their product unwillingly. If you opt to allow anyone to use your software, you better be willing to accept that some may use it for their own benefit.

Keith: Re-read the GPL. It explicitly states that any program that incorporates code under it must be governed by it - that is, if you use GPL code in your program, the ENTIRE program is now under the GPL, not just the one section. Personally, I think that Stallman did that because he was afraid that his idea wouldn't compete in the marketplace. Many of those other licences you talk about aren't viral - why is the GPL? Again, the modification of the bison GPL licence says a lot - nobody of consequence was willing to use a parser generator that would force them to use a licence not of their choosing.

I understand the concept of open source and in many ways agree with it. But the prevalance of the GPL worries me, as it takes a lot of the rights away from the developer, and also forces developers to abide by it, lest they lose access to the large amount of code under it.

To me, that's not freedom.

Posted by: AngelKnight2780 at June 20, 2003 09:44 PM | PERMALINK

"But the prevalance of the GPL worries me, as it takes a lot of the rights away from the developer, and also forces developers to abide by it, lest they lose access to the large amount of code under it."

You've got it backwards.

If a programmer wants to modify and distribute GPLed source, he has to agree to the license.

No one is forcing anyone to do anything.

"It would be like Ford having to put contract stipulations on a radio or drivetrain made by another manufacturer on the car as a whole."

Your analogy is flawed.

If the manufacturer of the radio said up front that they had to do that, then Ford has the choice not to put their radio in the car. Ford can buy another radio from someone else or make their own.
"Personally, I think that Stallman did that because he was afraid that his idea wouldn't compete in the marketplace."

Or he was afraid of people taking his code and making money off it with no benefit to himself and his project. He decided to trade monetary benefit for more code.

You can use all GPLed software all day long to write proprietary code. I do that. What I can't do is infringe on the wishes of other programmers and steal their code. No one is forcing me to do anything.

Do you have a specific example in mind of something that you'd like to many money on by taking other people's work without any sort of monetary or code compensation?

Also, if I own the copyright to a piece of code and release it under the GPL, there's nothing to stop me from turning it around and releasing it under another license and charging for it. Nothing at all. Contact the author(s) of a piece of GPLed code and ask to get it under a different license if you want. Its their choice what they want to do with it.

Posted by: Alex Pavloff at June 20, 2003 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

I think we should all just accept that Angel has bizarre definitions of "freedom" and "competition" and let it rest. The GPL is way, way more permissive than the average shrink-wrapped license that comes with any other piece of software; it's way more permissive than the licensing terms that most third-party proprietary libraries impose on developers; and if you really can't abide its terms, you are free to go to the copyright holder and negotiate alternative terms. This is much more free than you get in the world of proprietary software, and certainly no less free.

Angel is also embarrassingly ill-informed:

If I am not mistaken, all code on Sourceforge must be under the GPL, and the majority of open source projects are GPL-based.

From this I conclude that Angel has never actually visited Sourceforge, because its projects are licensed under all kinds of licenses, and it's not clear that GPL even dominates.


I don't think anybody's ever claimed that most "bespoke" software (software programmed for a specific client, to answer that client's individual business or technical need, like Amazon's obidos) will ever be open source. For that class of software, the openness of the source is pretty irrelevant. Nobody has any use for Boeing 747 flight controller software except Boeing. For that matter, even obidos is probably not worth much to anybody without Amazon's internal expertise and business environment to go along with it.

(On the other hand, OSS has caught on in certain industries you might not expect: CinePaint has been adopted in several professional feature film production companies for retouching/matting. That's an application that requires industry-specific knowledge, etc.; the difference being that in this industry, there are actually gains to be had from competitors' pooling labor on the workhorse tools that aren't central to your in-house competitive edge.)

Furthermore, I'm skeptical of the widely-held assumption that "end-user" apps that require UI refinement etc. won't arise out of OSS. It seems that OSS skeptics, much like creationists, are always calling on the God of the Gaps: "Well, evolutionary biologists may have fossil X, and fossil Y, but what about fossil Z?" Likewise, OSS skeptics are always saying: "Well, the open source world may have software X, and software Y, but what about software Z?" To wit:

When Stallman started the GNU project, people thought he was insane: "You might be able to build a text editor and some cute command-line utilities, but you'll never produce a compiler."

A few years later: "OK, you built a high-quality compiler and lots of development tools, but you'll never produce a complete operating system."

Then in the early 1990's: "Oh, well, you've finally got a kernel and the most popular web server on Earth, but your GUI tools are a joke and you don't support much hardware."

In the late 90's: "OK, you've got two nice GUI toolkits and two desktop environments, but they're really primitive, and your web browser's still a joke."

In 2003: "OK, you've got a great browser and your desktop environments are getting more usable, and you've got three office suites, and you've got some impetus in improving usability even further, but the whole package doesn't have as many features as Windows or MacOS, and it's still not very polished..."

Do you see a pattern emerging?

There's a simple unifying explanation that makes the above narrative obvious: the Free Software world has had to build its software universe from the bottom up, starting with the most basic programming tools and progressing steadily upwards to higher layers of the software edifice. At every stage people have been skeptical that Free Software can progress to the next, and Free Software has progressed regardless.

The current stage of Free Software's evolution comprises developing basic end-user software like file managers, web browsers, email clients, etc. This stage is beginning to draw to a close---the Free Software programs in this domain are approaching maturity. The next stage, which is just beginning, includes office software and higher-level end-user software. Will Free Software fail at this stage? It's possible, but I wouldn't put money on it.

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