Last night a colleague of mine was giving me a lesson in accounting (as I am going to start rolling out Point Of Sale systems with him). The lesson was valuable and, in a word, confusing (accountants do have a language of their own). At one point in the lesson I brought up open source, and he nearly turned red saying, “Nothing is free.” That statement got me to thinking about free, open source, and open source projects. He is right – nothing is free. At some point, someone had to make some sort of investment into a project to bring it to life (be that investment money, time, labor, etc). This thought sparked another and led me to, are you ready…

Santa Claus.

(Bear with me, it is the holiday season.)

The Santa Claus mythos has been around for generations – long before Linus Torvalds created Linux and RMS thought up FSF. And, if you follow the typical Santa Claus mythos, you should be able to see how easily it not only fits into the open source model, it could have been the very inspiration for the open source model.

Think about it:

There’s a man at the North Pole who is in charge of building toys for good little girls and boys. This man, one Kris Kringle (aka Santa Claus) does this with no apparent capital or backing, nor does he charge anything for these toys. Now helping out our good CEO (That’s Mr. Kringle) is a group of elves (non-union of course) who toil and sweat away building all of these toys for the good little girls and boys. As far as history has dictated, these helpers are not paid, nor do they demand payment for their work. (Although there has been recorded one particular elf who wanted to escape his servitude to become a more traditional, capitalist worker and serve as  a dentist – but that is neither here nor there.).

And what about these toys? We have conflicting ideas about these toys. If one follows the claymation-like stories (that formed our opinions as children) one sees these toys are typically wooden trains, dolls, puzzles, etc. All of these toys would be a part of the public domain. Because of this, Santa pays no royalty or fee in order to build and distribute these toys. Open source.

It isn’t until one prescribes to believing a more modern take on the Santa mythos – that Santa brings toys purchased from big box stores (or on-line retailers) – that the open source model falls apart in Santa’s sleigh. But then, if one believes the latter myth, the validity of the story begins to fall apart. How does Santa purchase these toys? How does an accountant keep Mr. Kringle out of prison for tax evasion? The questions begin to pile up.

So truly, the only way the Santa Claus myth actually works is if it follows the open source model. And although Mr. Kringle could profit from his toys, I think it safe to say, we all hope he does not.

Now I am not going to say that the idea of Santa Claus is, in fact, a myth. I don’t want to be held responsible for anyone’s children reading something they are not ready to read. My point is that, although the analogy is a bit of a stretch, it does illustrate that the open source model has been around for a while – and it can work. And even though it may be rather difficult to profit from an open source model, it can serve as a foundation or a fundamental principle. The free sharing of ideas, designs, and data can only serve to strengthen goods, technologies, ideas, research, and much more.

My colleague was right – there is nothing truly free (at least from the accountant perspective). Anything created has at least an initial investment. But some times the payback for that investment doesn’t necessarily have to come immediately. Some times that payback can happen later on when that initial design, idea, research, tool, etc. is improved by another source. Imagine, if you will, a bit of research, created in a lab at a university, that, because it was open sourced, was altered by another researcher and lead to the cure for cancer.

So Santa Claus had it right all along. Although he and his elves invest great time and resources into the creation of all of the toys that are given to all the good girls and boys, thanks to open source, Santa is able to spread the gift of joy to millions and billions of children across the globe. And, if the myth holds true, Santa Claus is the most successful open source project to date.

Happy holidays to everyone.

Oh, and if you do run into Santa Claus, please don’t threaten him with an intellectual property infringement lawsuit. For the children of course…