Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous

One of the things that the beginners learn is that coding is important, and that code is an important artifact. Which makes it difficult to convince them why giving away code is not dangerous. The philosophy of open source is usually met with raised eyebrows and skepticism in classrooms, especially if they have come to read how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs built companies and made money.

So here is yet another analogy, to explain why giving away the code only helps.

Imagine you run a transport service, ferrying passengers to destinations they want. A part of your job is to follow maps, find out new routes and build your knowledge about them so that you can take your passengers to the right destination. Now, if someone asks you for directions for going from one place to another, would you hesitate? In fact you would only be helping that person out by giving out the directions. Someone else comes too for them, and so you just make them available to everyone. Would that be a problem? It will hardly be, since your job is to enable your passengers to reach their destination, which is more than just directions. They might have a time-limit, they might want some intermediate hops or they might even have some weird baggage to be carried. You can help the passenger plan their travel, and even help them decide whether they want to travel by air, water or road. You try your best to provide a safe and convenient travel for your passengers within their constraints and that is what you get paid for.

Did you go out of your way to maintain those directions? No, you anyway had to do that for your business. You just told others what you how a certain route worked out.

There are other businesses, like the ones that sell maps or your competitors which might use directions given by you for themselves. But that should hardly matter, because directions is just one ingredient of the entire solution you offer. On the other hand, you giving out directions can only help you. It will create goodwill about you and also prove your dedication towards maintaining a record of your directions. Others who have to come to know of a better route might inform you about it or update the directions in your record. Or they might inform you about temporary impediments in the route. All this is going to help you in your own business.

There is also a possibility that you might lose passengers because some of they might choose to drive by using directions you gave. But that is hardly a loss. First, even if you do not provide the directions, it is easy for them to get it from someone else, like their friends or just go out and buy the map. Secondly, they are not your target audience since they are not looking for the solution you offer. This just turns into another benefit that you are helping even those who are not your customers. In fact you are helping all those who are looking for directions. Are directions important for your business? Sure. But you still benefited by opening them to others.

Code is not any different. Code sure is important, but just part of what you offer, a solution. Every individual and business has different needs and constraints, where you might end up using a lot of common code, but the solution is different. By giving away your code you can only benefit, not harm yourself. You get all the credibility, goodwill and even get back a lot of code back from the community. Do you still think that giving away your code is dangerous for your business?

Discussion [Participate or Link]

  1. L. K. Griffith said:

    What if your code contains significant information about how to do something that’s quite difficult, complex, and VALUABLE? What if you have spent over 20 years developing the technology? What if hundreds of other companies are working in the field and have gone down countless dead ends? What if nearly everyone else in the field says what you have done is impossible yet it works and they admit it works? Do you still say I should GIVE the code away?

    The only code that makes sense to give away is code that’s not worth much because it can be easily developed by tens of thousands of other programmers in not much more time than it takes to copy it. My code is the embodiment of my intellectual property developed at great expense of time and money. I do not give such things away.

    I am not a sacrificial goat to be consumed by anyone who can’t see why they just can’t take the results of a major fraction of my life for free. I am more than willing to trade value for value and expect the same in return.

    You want to give your code away? That’s your choice. Its likely worth at least as much as others pay for it.

  2. Making Something Important Available Easily | iface thoughts said:

    […] and abundance and easy availability are important. And this is what open source does. Code is an important ingredient for building software, and its easy availability can help in focusing more on rest of the pieces […]

  3. Abhijit Nadgouda said:

    Griffith, I have spent quite some time thinking so, especially when I had started my career. However, I am yet to find code that is so exclusive that others will not be able to write it. It is possible that they have not because they have not had the same problem, but it is difficult to believe that others will not be able to come up with the code. There is no surprise that code for the Linux kernel, various cryptography functions, web servers and various applications are open sourced. I do not think that is trivial code.

    Secondly, by opening up the code to others it will go under many hands and eyes. Ultimately it will benefit the the idea itself.

    I have come to believe that code is a part of what we do as software engineers. More than the code itself, higher value is in application of that code to build a solution.

    You are free to disagree, but there is enough evidence around that open source code is not always trivial.

  4. Matt said:

    I didn’t really take the time to read all of the comments, but i just want to say…

    Copyright/Trademark laws.

    Copyright it, ’nuff said.

    And as Abhijit said, the code can be reproduced easily.
    And, look at linux. Big success, because anyone can go in and fix bugs.
    By sharing the coding, any problems found can be fixed by other people, saving yourself alot of time.
    And yes, open sourcing pretty much destroys the idea of copyrighting said code, but, its two separate ideas.
    And they both work pretty well.

  5. Ben Tremblay said:

    Widgets and systems have some similarities … they have some things in common. But at some point that becomes ridiculous: a decent widget can be rolled out in a matter of hours. A system can have a research and design cycle that stretches for years.

    Giving away code is more than giving away key-strokes. A system that took, say, 8 months to code might have taken years to develop.

    Jumping off a high cliff into surging ocean waves isn’t dangerous. If/when/after</strong

    You’ve over-stated a good case. “Giving away your code doesn’t have to be isn’t always / necessarily dangerous” … or “How to position so that giving away your code is a Good Thing To Do” … a bit of nuance would make all the difference.


  6. tecosystems » links for 2007-12-25 said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous | iface thoughts there are a lot of economic problems with this argument, but there’s value in the example nonetheless (tags: code opensource programming value) […]

  7. Coding -- WebShoppeSolutions said:

    […] Saw an article that suggests that giving away your code is not dangerous. […]

  8. Aditya Mukherjee said:

    What about the concept of licensing? Like Griffith said, if something is written over a long period of time, or with considerable effort; something you know is hard to make — why would you give that out for free?

    An example here would be the Facebook Platform ‘F8’. They recently began licensing it out to companies. They’ll be making money from it, I’m sure … and a lot of it, because it’s a very well developed/planned solution. Giving out something like that for free is a huge loss to the company.

    “It is difficult to believe that others will not be able to come up with the code”

    It ‘is’ difficult to believe that someone who ‘does’ come up with the code, will give it away for free without wanting ‘something’ back as payment for the effort that went into it.

  9. Kaveh said:

    Imagine this model:
    Microsoft can now announce the Windows Open Source. Why? Because It already has the market and if this happens windows will getting better for sure.
    But a question: how can I bring the food on table with starting an open source project?

  10. adana oto kiralama said:


  11. Geekaholic said:

    Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous…

    Code sure is important, but just part of what you offer, a solution. Every individual and business has different needs and constraints, where you might end up using a lot of common code, but the solution is different. By giving away your code you ca…

  12. prashant said:

    Agree with Author.

    Agree that most of times it works by open-sourcing.

    Agree with few that it may not work also.For example: Google search aligorithm why not it was open-sourced?


  13. theseeview said:

    I’m not a coding pro. In fact, everything I know code-wise came from studying the open source code made available by various kind souls. I am, in fact, an artist. I know exactly what it’s like to have a month’s worth of sleepless nights’ work stolen by some 4$$h0l3, watching in poverty as the nearby public gather ’round throwing adoration and money at the one person you know doesn’t deserve it.

    “Sure, it’s nice to get and give helpful tips here and there,” one might say, “but when do I get to reap my benefits from my work that I did?”

    I have no idea if there is an absolute answer, but a quick and dirty solution would be to ONLY give away for free what you expect (hope) to get back for free at some point. To pull from the old sunday school lessons, you’ll “reap what you sow” and all that.

    Or to pull from an even more spiritual standpoint, see the turntableist documentary “Scratch” and hear DJ Q-bert’s theory behind the release of his crew’s how-to-be-a-DJ instructional tapes: they teach you, and Q and company learn from your variations on what they’ve provided.

    Or if you prefer a more sinister viewpoint (like mine), refer to “The Incredibles” main baddie Syndrome; It may cost you a few multi-million dollar combat androids, but the information you’ll gain about your enemy in return makes it all worthwhile.

    If your code is the ultimate solution to an unsolvable computing solution, copyright that s**t and pelt with used printer cartridges all who try and steal it. But if your code is the computing equivalent of showing someone how to use a popsicle stick and a rubber band to make higher scores in the original NES “Track & Field” (gee, how old am I), there shouldn’t be a problem with sharing now and then.

  14. Links für den 25.12.2007 | virtuatron::weblog said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous | iface thoughts (Tags: opensource) Social Bookmarking: Diese Icons verzweigen auf soziale Netzwerke bei denen Nutzer neue Inhalte finden und mit anderen teilen können. […]

  15. tndal said:

    An insane attempt to justify giving IP away.

  16. The Geek said:

    Microsoft could start giving away the source code to Windows tomorrow and it would effect their bottom line by a lot less then most people would think or Microsoft is willing to admit. Where does Microsoft make most of their revenue, from tech support, MCSE testing, and other non Windows software. And just because you give it away for private use doesn’t mean you cant still charge for business use. There are many companies doing that today.

  17. speech recognition software said:

    Hello! You can give away your code. But thanks to VoxForge it is possible to give away your transcribed speech files under the GPL. The goal is to develop a free and open source speech recognition software. And people are needed, who give away some speech files.

  18. Abhijit Nadgouda said:

    Wow, so this post did pick up a lot of comments.

    Some clarifications. By giving away the code, I do not mean giving up its ownership or your credibility. There are various open source licenses to make sure that you get credit for your work. Open source is about access to the source code for others.

    Secondly, I do not think that all software in the world can be or should be open source. But most of the times the objections hover around the fear that letting others access your code is wasting away your effort. In my experience, it only gets added to through others’ contributions.

    Also, there is hardly any open source project that started with a business model in mind. Open source efforts usually start to serve ones personal needs, which is the main value to get out of the code. But if opened up, it can help others, and indirectly benefits you too.

  19. Peter said:

    I think a travel business is an interesting analogy but how about this? Do you think Columbus gave away his maps of the New World for free?

  20. Daniel Black said:

    Abhijit, your analogy is a bit off. When you release code, you release the engine for actual work to be processed. You are not releasing a design schematic, you are not releasing directions for the construction of an efficient algorithm; you are releasing the thing itself, ready to be put to use on par with your own implementation. One possible adaptation of your analogy might be to, rather than merely provide directions to potential competitors, to actually tow their ferries on your routes: you’re providing the direction and quite a bit of the motive power, but maybe they also provide motive power, and along the way slight course corrections. Your customers get where they’re going at least as quickly, and potentially more quickly, as they would if you kept things to yourself. At the same time, though, your competitors have the chance to woo your customers, and you theirs. Not sure how that shakes out, but it’s not self-evidently a superior business strategy, taken as such.

    However, there’s the other side of this, too: open source code can provide for the development of brand awareness. There’s no coincidence that WordPress.org begat WordPress.com, nor that open-source and freely-available WordPress begat a for-profit business tailoring WordPress installations for the likes of CNN and People Magazine.

    So we shouldn’t waste time debating the extremes as if the world fell only on either sides of a binary partition. Drug dealers archetypically provide a first hit for free because they know they’ll make up the unit loss with higher overall business for having done so. Coders needn’t give either all or none of their IP away, but rather could choose to provide some property via whatever F/LOSS licensing scheme they choose, with a manifold intent: (a) releasing an idea’s implementation into the wild to let others improve upon it, specifically for mutual gain; (b) releasing code as a statement of the quality of work, for branding; and (c) releasing code for philanthropic reasons.

    For those folks who commented above that they’ve spent years developing something, no one’s suggesting you give that away with some naive notion that free code, a Coke, and a smile will somehow provide for an emergent intellectual utopia. Maybe there are ways that you can interact with the community by releasing some pieces of your work, while keeping some closer to your vests. There’s nothing to be gained by artificially polarizing the discussion.

  21. Nick said:

    Hi Abhijit,
    I like what you have here.. sharing any codes is fine with me.. but knowing of having a code is the challenge…
    How in the world you recognize that you do have a code to give out and share it with others?

    Any comments are just fine.. I know I may sound not so bright.. well, for this I am not very bright, so THANKS for bringing it up on the open and please YOU or OTHERS, reply when possible.

  22. Bluebell Sun » Giving Away Your Code said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous. […]

  23. Carsten’s Blog » Blog Archive » Not only open source said:

    […] And here I lost interest in continuing until I found Why giving away your code is not dangerous. […]

  24. Vivek said:

    For me the piece of code I gave away helped me get a free MSDN subscription worth about 10 grand and a lot of goodwill and peer appreciation.
    The highest price per line of code to date.

    One semi ethical programmer who tried to pass of my free code as his, was discovered by his client, and the client ended up giving me the work.

    I have benefitted a huge amount by free code and I intend to give away as much as I possibly can of my own code.

    Sure sure, there are many people who think that their code is so damn valuable that they need to patent, copyright and prosecute for its sake, but thats just pure vanity. All advance for mankind has been made by sharing knowledge. Code isn’t a salable resource to be conserved.

  25. Warren Marshall said:

    Some people are regarding code as a zero sum game. By sharing it with others, they lose the benefits or knowledge they gained. Not so.

    John Carmack has given away the source code for the Doom games as well as the first 3 Quakes – is his company suffering?

  26. Mark said:

    Wow! I am amazed that no one here sees the faulty premise of this analogy. Only two people seem to understand how ridiculous this analogy is; and one is an artist. Granted, this person is a bitter artist.

    If you “ferry” people from place to place, you would not give someone your vessel (car, truck, boat, taxi, pedi-cab, ferry) and allow them to use it to get to their destination without paying you; nor would you allow them to make money ferrying people, while you don’t. Stupid. Beyond stupid.

    The fact that code can be replicated does not change the equation. Someone made the comment that some code is ubiquitous; that is true. However code segments are what are ubiquitous, it’s the combination of those code segments in new and useful ways that is not.

    There comes a point where giving away your IP means that you have “given away the farm”; that’s country-speak for giving up your lively hood.

    To make a blanket statement that giving away code is not a bad thing, shows a level clueless-ness that is astounding. I understand that many of the programmers these days are Socialist (belief in communal property that everyone shares), so I am not totally shocked that this type of thinking occurs. I am amazed that so many who trade on logic to make a living (coders), don’t see how faulty the thinking is.

    If M$ gave away the code to M$ Windows, the cost would be staggering. First the imitators would cut into the OS sales AND THE TECH SUPPORT SALES. It’s a fallacy to think that support for Windows, MCSE sales, and training are what M$ is making the money on. (it’s Office where they make a killing) Yes I know this is the hue and cry of the Open Source crowd; however it’s silly. IBM was most profitable when it was supporting its own proprietary code. Ever wonder why there is only one “successful” Linux O/S company? (I am referring to Redhat, Suse is semi-successful) Maybe you should think about that.

    Can you make money by giving things away? Yes, you can. Linus Torvolds is a good example. He has made a boat-load of money off the work of others. Thus the problem with Open Source, and Socialism in general: the laws of economics can not be suspended, someone always gets paid. It can by you, or someone else. I find it disgusting that so many revere Linus for doing very little, and not even something unique. Like Bill Gates, he has used others work to get rich. Something I keep hearing everyone complain about, and yet they cheer when one of their own does the same.

    That is biggest problem with Open Source; you give up your value. If like Linus you can use it to catapult yourself to a nice cushy job and “expert” status; then you have gained. However many thousands of people have given up their “value”, their “worth” to increase his. That’s the end result of all Socialism, and Open Source is Socialism. Everyone sacrifices except for those in control, who reap the benefits. Ask the Soviet “citizens” or the Chinese “citizens” about that. No amount of “we will do it better” or “different” will change the fact that those at the top will benefit. Open Source just makes it easier.

    Having said that, if you want to give away your code, be my guest. It’s your code. This one sentence points out the faulty thinking of the Open Source crowd. They despise ownership, yet defend their decisions using ownership as the reason they can do what they want with the code. These same people expect to be paid to code, yet believe that what they do has no value (that’s why you give things away).

    Yes there are a few deluded souls who are true believers in “free”, most however are not. They are merely deluded hypocrites.

    Oh and before someone says “what about Charity”; Charitable endeavors are done for psychic income. That means they either get a “warm fuzzy” or they believe that they will be rewarded in Heaven, or Kharmic-ly. Many Socialist believe they are “helping others” by being Socialist. It what allows them to say its ok to take that which is not theirs and give it to someone to which it does not belong; justifying it as a “good” or “Kharmic” act is absurd. It’s an even bigger coup when they can convince people to freely give away that which is theirs.

  27. sitBandR » Blog Archive » API and Mashups - Google Maps, USPS, UPS and FedEx - and a hint of RSS said:

    […] I said earlier I am happy to share and discuss my code, just ask and I will give it away. This post about sharing code gave me the final confidence to happily give away my secrets. I bumped into it from Matt […]

  28. Pete Ashton’s Blog » Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous. Replace “code” with “ideas” and this is a handy analogy for encouraging people to blog. via Photo Matt […]

  29. Buckminster said:

    Wherever you are, there will always be someone who can and will write code for less than you can or will. You can’t beat their price for actual code, but what you’re selling is much more than just that. Globally, copyright law and even patent law is basically an honor system and there are many countries which have demonstrated a complete lack of honor. By demanding that no code should be given away, you are merely a protectionist in a system where true protection is not possible.

    Obviously not ALL code should be given away. If you only think in absolutes and see open source as socialism, my guess is you’re not that great a coder, either.

  30. Following Up On Giving Away Of Code | iface thoughts said:

    […] effort to explain why giving away your code is not dangerous evoked a lot of response. I think the analogy there partly worked but also fell in the classic […]

  31. chris said:

    “John Carmack has given away the source code for the Doom games as well as the first 3 Quakes – is his company suffering?”

    Well, he released them after sales on both items were down to almost nothing. It took, what? 5 years before they released it? Quake 3 engine they also waited like 5-6 years to release it. You just don’t get it. At that point, they had made their money, and moved years beyond that technology. It’s like possessing the source code to Windows 95. Big whoop, the company knows you cant modify that to *beat* anything they are currently doing.

    As for the ferryman/directions analogy, it is ridiculous on so many levels.

    This is more akin to the proverbial ‘family recipe’ that has been passed down for generations. It’s been stated that any code out there can be reproduced. True, but so can that family recipe, but does it? You don’t see coke releasing their recipe, or if you buy a scalped ticket, the guy doesn’t give you a manual on how you can do it yourself and cut him out completely. Hell, the guy fixing your car would have a problem walking you through doing the whole thing yourself, giving you training manuals and his personal contacts to get cheap parts, wouldn’t he?

    I am a fan of open source technology, and in many cases, it makes sense to open source things (Adoption, gaining customers, making a large project better, etc), but other times, it is harmful to your business to even consider it. You do not seem to think there is a distinction, and that is sad.

  32. chris said:

    As a side note, it is rather sad that you equate coding with a ferryman giving directions. I equate it closer to writing novels. Do you see [insert your favorite author here] releasing all his works with free modification and free of copyright restrictions? Yes, you can see his ‘source code’, but you have no rights to them besides fair use. The idea behind open source is that others usually retain rights to use your code with little restrictions (even the GPL grants this). Sure, anyone could write any novel out there (lol), but there is something to be said for a single piece of work that is unique and non reproducible.

  33. vrypan|net|weblog » Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous | iface thoughts said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous […]

  34. IncrediBILL said:

    Well giving away some code open source *IS* dangerous, especially code that focuses on server security because it gives those very people you’re trying to stop the ability to look at what you did and find any easy way to circumvent your code.

    FWIW, Open Source is Open Season on anyone running it which is why anyone running phpBB, WordPress and other Open Source products typically have a bullseye painted on their servers which is why I don’t use those tools.

    Might as well give crooks the keys to your front door.

    Yup, nothing dangerous about giving it away.

  35. stevo said:

    “You get all the credibility, goodwill and even get back a lot of code back from the community. ”

    It’s pretty apparent you haven’t ever managed an open source project. You’ll get some vague bug reports, people asking questions and for support, and thats usually about it. It will cost your company/self time, energy, etc with very little back except some poor QA.

    If you download some open source software, and see a bug, do you personally file a nice report along with your fixes? no, i bet you just hack in a fix and go about your business.. or if you cant code, you complain that something isnt working. I dont see that as much of a benefit.

  36. openswitch » Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous. Very interesting article. Even more interesting are the comments that follow. I think there needs to be a distinct understanding that code is different from solution. I have lots of people come to me with a problem. They say, “I need a solution.” I could just point them to, say, WordPress and say, “There’s all the code you need.” But that’s not what they’ll be paying me for. They want me to take that freely available code and use it to create a solution to their problem. This entry was posted on at 4:38 pm and filed under url. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed. « A fractured convention? […]

  37. » Why This Blog is a Failure - John Andrews - johnon.com said:

    […] not good at pretending to be dumb. I can’t, for example, proclaim with a straight face that it is not dangerous to give away code. Hell I can’t even link to it with a straight face. It would be so phony, even I […]

  38. Warrem said:

    “Well, he released them after sales on both items were down to almost nothing. It took, what? 5 years before they released it? Quake 3 engine they also waited like 5-6 years to release it. You just don’t get it. At that point, they had made their money, and moved years beyond that technology. It’s like possessing the source code to Windows 95. Big whoop, the company knows you cant modify that to *beat* anything they are currently doing.”

    You’re looking at it from a purely financial standpoint. That’s not where I’m coming from.

    To use your example, why doesn’t MS give away the Windows 95 source code? It’s financially dead to them so why hold onto it? id released their source in the hopes that others could learn from it (which they have). MS will never do that because they fear code is a zero sum game.

    It’s not.

  39. Giving Away Your Code at blog.rotracker.net said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code Is Not Dangerous. […]

  40. Random Coder said:

    Open source is the Public Library of code-land. It’s where old coders go when their careers die so they can appear ‘active’ and hopefully break back into the commercial world or con some investors into ‘donating’ to their ‘non-profit’ open source project. It’s where the great classical works of literature (bubble sort, etc.) hang out in or near the public domain. You’ll never find the latest, greatest, or best novel, technical manual, periodical, or exactly what you needed in the Public Library as soon as you can find it on Amazon or Barns & Noble. Linux, Mono, Drupal, and every other open source project out there lags behind the cutting edge, like the three year old novels drifting into the public library. By the time the open source conforms to the open standard set by a closed source industry (i.e. creator or innovator with substantial R&D budgets allocated from all that oh-so-evil profit), the “greedy capitalists” who insist on closed source for their proprietary works have already released their second version and an expansion to the standard, or even a replacement standard that is 2 to 3 times better than the old.

    In short, open source lags behind, follows, and fails to innovate. It’s only really non-profit for the people who do the work – open source developers. And if you’re not getting paid to write software, get ready to say “Would you like fries with that module?”

  41. Freddie Vincent said:

    Surely it’s a question of the value you’re giving away ?

  42. Jeffrey Jone said:

    I really liked this blog, and will definetly come back for more. Only thing is, I didn’t find how to subscribe to this blog. Will you implement this in the future? – The laziest man I ever met put popcorn in his pancakes so they would turn over by themselves. W.C.Filelds 1880 1962

  43. Jimmy Jarman said:

    The reception will follow from 9 pm — midnight across the street in City Hall’s Rotunda. After-party co-host MySpace will be supplying a celebrity DJ. There will be an open bar, finger food, game room, and other fun surprises. – I like children. Properly cooked. W.C.Filelds 1880 1956

  44. The Sharing and Caring of the WordPress Community Shines « Lorelle on WordPress said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code is Not Dangerous, Abhijit Nadgouda of ifacethoughts looks at the issue of “sharing” and Open Source from […]

  45. The Sharing and Caring of the WordPress Community Shines « Lorelle on WordPress said:

    […] Why Giving Away Your Code is Not Dangerous, Abhijit Nadgouda of ifacethoughts looks at the issue of “sharing” and Open Source from […]

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Abhijit Nadgouda
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