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Updated: February 2, 2013 01:03 IST

Like poetry for software

Rahul De'
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Open source programme creators cater to the highest standards and give away their work for free, much like Ghalib who wrote not just for money but the discerning reader

Mirza Ghalib, the great poet of 19th century Delhi and one of the greatest poets in history, would have liked the idea of Open Source software. A couplet Mirza Ghalib wrote is indicative:

Bik jaate hain hum aap mata i sukhan ke saath

Lekin ayar i taba i kharidar dekh kar

(translated by Ralph Russell as:

I give my poetry away, and give myself along with it

But first I look for people who can value what I give).

Free versus proprietary

Ghalib’s sentiment of writing and giving away his verses reflects that of the Free and Open Source software (FOSS) movement, where thousands of programmers and volunteers write, edit, test and document software, which they then put out on the Internet for the whole world to use freely. FOSS software now dominates computing around the world. Most software now being used to run computing devices of different types — computers, servers, phones, chips in cameras or in cars, etc. — is either FOSS or created with FOSS. Software commonly sold in the market is referred to as proprietary software, in opposition to free and open source software, as it has restrictive licences that prohibit the user from seeing the source code and also distribute it freely. For instance, the Windows software sold by Microsoft corporation is proprietary in nature. The debate of FOSS versus proprietary software (dealing with issues such as which type is better, which is more secure, etc.) is by now quite old, and is not the argument of this article. What is important is that FOSS now constitutes a significant and dominant part of the entire software landscape.

The question many economists and others have pondered, and there are many special issues of academic journals dedicated to this question, is why software programmers and professionals, at the peak of their skills, write such high quality software and just give it away. They spend many hours working on very difficult and challenging problems, and when they find a solution, they eagerly distribute it freely over the Internet. Answers to why they do this range, broadly, in the vicinity of ascribing utility or material benefit that the programmers gain from this activity. Though these answers have been justified quite rigorously, they do not seem to address the core issue of free and open source software.

I find that the culture of poetry that thrived in the cultural renaissance of Delhi, at the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar, resembles the ethos of the open source movement and helps to answer why people write such excellent software, or poetry, and just give it away. Ghalib and his contemporaries strived to express sentiments, ideas and thoughts through perfect phrases. The placing of phrases and words within a couplet had to be exact, through a standard that was time-honoured and accepted. For example, the Urdu phrase ab thhe could express an entirely different meaning, when used in a context, from the phrase thhe ab, although, to an untrained ear they would appear the same. (Of course, poets in any era and writing in any language, also strove for the same perfection.)

Ghalib wrote his poetry for the discerning reader. His Persian poetry and prose is painstakingly created, has meticulous form and is written to the highest standards of those times. Though Ghalib did not have much respect for Urdu, the language of the population of Delhi, his Urdu ghazals too share the precision in language and form characteristic of his style. FOSS programmers also create software for the discerning user, of a very high quality, written in a style that caters to the highest standards of the profession. Since the source code of FOSS is readily available, unlike that for proprietary software, it is severely scrutinised by peers, and there is a redoubled effort on the part of the authors to create the highest quality.

Source material

Ghalib’s poetry, particularly his ghazals, have become the source materials for many others to base their own poetry. For example, Ghalib’s couplet Jii dhoondhta hai phir wohi ... (which is part of a ghazal) was adapted by Gulzar as Dil dhoondhta hai phir wohi..., with many additional couplets, as a beautiful song in the film Mausam. It was quite common in the days of the Emperor to announce a zameen, a common metre and rhyming structure, that would then be used by many poets to compose their ghazals and orate them at a mushaira (public recitation of poetry). FOSS creators invariably extend and build upon FOSS that is already available. The legendary Richard Stallman, who founded the Free software movement, created a set of software tools and utilities that formed the basis of the revolution to follow. Millions of lines of code have been written based on this first set of free tools, they formed the zameen for what was to follow. Many programmers often fork a particular software, as Gulzar did with the couplet, and create new and innovative features.

Ghalib freely reviewed and critiqued poetry written by his friends and acquaintances. He sought review and criticism for his own work, although, it must be said, he granted few to be his equal in this art (much like the best FOSS programmers!). He was meticulous in providing reviews to his shagirds (apprentices) and tried to respond to them in two days, in which time he would carefully read everything and mark corrections on the paper. He sometimes complained about not having enough space on the page to mark his annotations. The FOSS software movement too has a strong culture of peer review and evaluation. Source code is reviewed and tested, and programmers make it a point to test and comment on code sent to them. Free software sites, such as Sourceforge.org, have elaborate mechanisms to help reviewers provide feedback, make bug reports and request features. The community thrives on timely and efficient reviews, and frequent releases of code.

Ghalib was an aristocrat who was brought up in the culture of poetry and music. He wrote poetry as it was his passion, and he wanted to create perfect form and structure, better than anyone had done before him. He did not directly write for money or compensation (and, in fact, spent most of his life rooting around for money, as he lived well beyond his means), but made it known to kings and nawabs that they could appoint him as a court poet with a generous stipend, and some did. In his later years, after the sacking of Delhi in 1857, he lamented that there was none left who could appreciate his work.

However, he was confident of his legacy, as he states in a couplet: “My poetry will win the world’s acclaim when I am gone.” FOSS creators too write for the passion and pleasure of writing great software and be acknowledged as great programmers, than for money alone. The lure of money cannot explain why an operating system like Linux, which would cost about $100 million to create if done by professional programmers, is created by hundreds of programmers around the world through thousands of hours of labour and kept out on the Internet for anyone to download and use for free. The urge to create such high quality software is derived from the passion to create perfect form and structure. A passion that Ghalib shared.

(Rahul De' is Hewlett-Packard Chair Professor of Information Systems at IIM, Bangalore)

More In: Lead | Opinion

Superb Article....
As our country is independent country and being an independent person
I Believe in freedom and only FOSS allows me Freedom.
I value FOSS. I follow FOSS so I live in FOSS world.
Jay Hind Jay FOSS !!!

from:  Ujwala Pawade
Posted on: Feb 4, 2013 at 19:45 IST

One Wah Wah for a particular poet is worth everything, rather that shayri wasn't for free...

from:  syed younus
Posted on: Feb 4, 2013 at 15:59 IST

very nice article...it shows how the labors of FOSS programmers should be appreciated by comparing them with a icon like Ghalib saab..

from:  Manoj Chanda
Posted on: Feb 4, 2013 at 09:27 IST

I don't quite agree with the analogy/parallelism that the author
is trying to bring out. As one of the commenters pointed out FOSS is
not free as in freebies but free as in freedom. It has become a
disease to introduce GNU/Linux or other free and open source software
as a freebie there for the taking, which actually shouldn't be done.
And, I don't understand why it should surprise the author that FOSS is
shared and not charged by everyone who develops it. Scientific
research works that way! After it should not have surprised me that in
a country that celebrates Steve Jobs as a great hero, and where almost
every Ram, Ron and Rahim is taking a MBA degree thinks that way. All
these developers do make money from donations either directly from
users, or through web services like Flattr. And moreover every other
GNU/Linux distribution comes with an option of buying a CD/DVD. So for
God's sake stop portraying it as a freebie, when the reality is that
we don't care to donate a bit!

from:  Balaji Devaraju
Posted on: Feb 4, 2013 at 06:09 IST

a great article, kudos Mr. De' here you have shown a good relationship and a parallelism b/w software developers and poetry writers.
after reading this article i think a good poet or a developer or anybody should not strive for the money, he should work for his passion money will come automatically to his pocket !!

from:  A. Kumar
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 21:49 IST

Sorry, Ralph Russell, that was a terrible translation. In fact, Ghalib does talk about selling - he is not giving it away - but he will only sell with conditions. A literal translation of the couplet would be:
"You and I get sold along with the stock of poetry,
But only after a touchstone examination of the buyer's temperament."

from:  Zia Hasan
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 19:24 IST

Kudos, Mr De ! This is a superb piece on the unlikely parallels between poetry and software, and their creators. Keep writing...

from:  Sreepathy
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 18:54 IST

"The urge to create such high quality software is derived from the
passion to create perfect form and structure. A passion that Ghalib
shared." I think this is what we all should strive for. Not for the
material benefits that we get for doing some work, but the satisfaction
you get after creating something perfect and useful to the mankind.

from:  Nadeem Hasnain
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 13:57 IST

Very well written sir ! The parallel between poetry and FOSS was worth
reading indeed ! As a contributor towards FOSS in KDE
organisation(Worlds largest FOSS organisation), I feel you have
justified your point of passion for software development and not the
lure of money ! Linux surely would have cost huge but FOSS culture
made it possible to use it freely and admire the source code !

from:  Akshay Ratan
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 13:47 IST

Enjoyed reading this nice article. Reminds me of a talk given by a CPM MLA during Richard Stallman's visit to Kerala. The MLA compared the FOSS efforts to make IT accessible to common people with the efforts from ancient times to make Vedas accessible to the masses (my example: Thirukkural).

from:  Kannan
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 11:09 IST

I look forward to an article by the Linus Torvalds Chair Professor of Information Systems on the virtues of Windows & Hyper-V and compare it to Shakespeare!

from:  Srini Balan
Posted on: Feb 3, 2013 at 04:49 IST

A corporate management guru singing the praises of FOSS? looks like the good professor found religion.

from:  Hemant
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 23:46 IST

Good to read, but isn't it strange that one talks about FOSS and does
not mention Linus Torvalds; talks about sourceforge.org and forgets git
(the version control system which makes the open source collaborative
development possible).

from:  Manoj
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 20:42 IST

Another world is possible with modern day Galibs as FOSS and then
Robinhood of information distributors like Late legend Aaron Swartz.

from:  Rakesh Manchanda
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 19:24 IST

This is a well intentioned article, but there are several issues with it. I'll point out a few:

1. Free software doesn't necessarily mean 'free of cost'. It is okay to sell free software. Stallman, who the author quotes, says, 'Think of free as in freedom of speech, not as in free beer.'

2. The Ghalib connection is therefore tenuous. Ghalib wrote in a time when book publishing & copyrights as we know them did not exist. He wasn't foregoing an alternative economic model based on (proprietary) copyright in favour of 'freely distributing his poetry'.

3. There are important philosophical & ethical distinctions between 'free' & 'open source' software.

4. Linux is not an operating system. It is a kernel (piece of code) running as a part of Stallman's GNU OS.

5. No discussion about free software is complete without mentioning the four important freedoms part of the GNU General Public License that Stallman created in 90s. These include the freedom to distribute it with or without a price.

from:  Ajinkya D
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 18:51 IST

Nice comparison between two different fields. Probably, in every field, the real reason behind altruistic individual contributions is the passion and pleasure of creating something better than original!

from:  Alash Kumar
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 17:04 IST

For those with reflecting minds the comparison is absolutely apt. Ghalib
and the creators of FOSS, their 'mission' is to bring simplicity to the
zenith of perfection. Kodos, an article well written

from:  Muzaffar A. Syed
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 15:35 IST

Very Very Interesting!

from:  satyendra
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 14:51 IST

A beautiful ode to a timeless intellectual and some selfless effort of
our own times :)

from:  Raghavendra Adla
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 12:11 IST

far fetched comparisons but made an interesting read.

from:  abhi
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 12:04 IST

A very good article drawing a very interesting parallel. Urdu as my
mother tongue and Software Project Management as my profession, I
could not but help agree with each word written above.
This reminds me of another couplet by Ghalib
Surma-e-Muft-e-Nazar Hoon Meri Qeemat Ye Hai
Ki Rahey Chashm-e-Khareedar Pey Ehsaan Mera - Ghalib

I’m antimony given free, the only recompense I claim
the favour done be kept in mind by every eye that I adorn.

So true about Ghalib and the open source movement !!!

from:  Adnan F Abbasi
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 12:00 IST

Far fetched comparison. I think the author is trying to fit facts to his theory... I think others will agree , but I grant it could be my opinion.

Lack of response here suggests it has not struck a chord.

On a lateral note if it is 100m dollars that a new operating system will cost,ie only 550 crores why cant the Government of India give us a new robust Indian language operating system ? For that matter why cannot we produce an operating system to challenge Windows ? We are supposed to be smart I believe...

from:  Saurabh Sharma
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 05:34 IST

Very nice article, good translation by Ralph Russell. Agree with the
author that in the global struggle of altruism vs. big business, all
Urdu poets are firmly in the altruism camp and Asad-Ullah Khan Ghalib is
certainly no exception.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Feb 2, 2013 at 01:46 IST
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