Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The subversiveness of Open Source

It's no longer novel to observe that Open Source is, if not the dominant software paradigm of the era, at least one of the most significant innovations in the history of software practice.  Recently it struck me how downright bizarre the Open Source paradigm really is.  I can't think of another field of human endeavour where the fundamental paradigm mandates giving away the product of one's labour.  Consider a few sweepingly-generalized examples:
  • Business - Fugedaboudit!  It's all about the money.  Apart from the Diggers of 60's Haight-Ashbury notoriety there aren't too many examples of businesses whose model consists of giving away their stock.
  • Arts - Hah!  Obviously the big media companies are doing everything they can to squeeze money out of artistic endeavour.  But even among the less mercantile stakeholders the main discussion is about how artists can be compensated for their creations.  No-one seriously advocates that artists give away all their work for free. 
  • Sport -  Don't get me started on the gross discrepancy between compensation and value in professional sport.  And at the amateur level, sponsorship and funding organizations are recognized to be essential to promoting the continued generation of sporting "product".  (Wouldn't it be great if there was a similar system of sponsorship for software developers?)
  • Science - You might think this would be the exception that proves the rule.  After all, sharing research results is a revered principle of scientific progress.  The domain relies on publishing information openly to an even greater extent than in software development.  But in my (admittedly limited) experience many scientists are actually quite protective of their intellectual property, since their livelihood depends in a direct way on amassing it and monetizing how it is dispensed.  And it's well known that academic institutions pay very close attention to licensing the IP generated by them (or their employees).
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the open source paradigm is flawed or wrong.  In fact, I spend the major part of my professional life living and breathing Open Source geospatial software (JTS/GEOS, JEQL, Proj4J, GeoServer, PostGIS, etc). As a means of increasing the velocity and quality of software development it's by far the best model. And it's much more democratic and self-actualizing than the semi-feudal alternatives.  But it really is a subversive concept.  Marxist, even.  It's no wonder that it's taking so long for the suits to wrap their heads around how to deal with it.

Long live the anarcho-syndicalist commune of Open Source Software craftsmen!


maps said...

Yes it seems that the open source approach is pretty odd ( but nice ) . I am also using a lot of FOSS for geospatial software and am happy it finally has arrived also in the business world of the 'suits' ;) . I can think of some other business approaches that mostly appeared over the last decade that have some similarities , but only so far as kind of initially (almost) 'giving away' products or services. One example are internet businesses such as Google. Google searches are free , Google maps and docs are free - well until a certain limit and so on. So they are setting the bait and people bite on it , possibly later to pay for additional services , but many do not ...So how is OS similar to that ? Well in some ways . It is free , it does not try to lurk people into hidden costs , but all of us have to make a living some how and get paid. So OS can make your organization money if you provide services, training, consulting and so on around the software (like myself e.g.) . So one part of the 'advertising' can be to be a well known developer of a certain OS software e.g. Another example I can think of is mobile phone companies or the computer printer business: Some of those you kind of get 'free' devices such as phones (admittedly by signing a contract for services with mobile phones) or almost free (in case of printers or much lower than actual production cost) only because the companies are planning to make the money on you later , when using the services (or buying printer cartridges - thinking of my d**n HP color inkjet that stopped printing greyscale pages only because the color cartridge has 'expired' - even though I never print in color :) . While such artificial expiration dates are not part of OS (luckily) some of this approach is similar in a way (though not as nice :) ). In the end we all will need to make a living and get paid , somehow .. one way or the other. But the approach (OS) not paying for software 'boxes' (aka licenses) seems absolutely right, sustainable and exciting to me. Cheers
Karsten Vennemann

Nathan said...

Yeah I have had a fun time explaining the open source model to people most of the time it goes like this:

Them:"So what do you do in your free time"
Me:"I work on the open source GIS program QGIS"
Them:"Open Source?"
Me:"Well anyone can get the code and work on it, most of the time the work is contributed back to the project so that everyone benefits"
Them:"Do you get paid for that"
Me:"No. Most of the time I don't."
Them:"Why would you want to do that? Why do something for free that people can just use without credit"
Me:"{Insert standard response to that question}"

I always find people really struggle with the idea.

Jody Garnett said...

I think any field where collaboration or cooperation is key to the success of all involved you get a similar open source response.

Drafting of laws, defining of standards, etc...

What we are missing in this open source movement is the shame factor for those not participating (See BBC -The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers for a nice discussion of this).

sgillies said...

Sometimes I think we tend to excessively theorize Open Source. At its best, it's nothing more and nothing less than barn-raising, right?

If an MBA can't get their head around that, it's his problem, not mine ;)

Dr JTS said...


Good examples of production systems that are open by definition.

Wouldn't it be great if we got paid like lawyers and politicians...

Dr JTS said...


Yeah, there is a certain risk of navel gazing. OTOH as a classicist I'm sure you know what Socrates said about the unexamined life.

Dr JTS said...

@Jody - also a good point about the shame factor. One place you do see this (although usually not explicitly) is at open source conferences. It always feels awkward around the few hardy proprietary vendors that show up.

Jody Garnett said...

Well we also try and apply the shame factor around participation, setting a minimum bar at complete bug reporting (for those who cannot code).

I feel a great solidarity with the proprietary (or any) vendors that show up - my day job is solving problems and helping customers after all.

There is a certain magic to not seeing how the sausages are made. The customers of a proprietary vendor are paying extra for that magic. Or more accurately they are paying extra to be ignorant and allow the vendor to manage responsible/risk.

Steve Ediger said...

Michel Bauwen and the other folks over at http://p2pfoundation.net do a pretty good job of connecting all the threads of economics, the commons, open source (including open production) together in an integrated framework. They also have some detailed analyses of commonalities between traditional 'gift economies' and mores in the open source communities.