Friday, June 5, 2009

Free to choose: free riding inherent with free software

Blogging is mainly suspended this week as part of my full-time efforts to cover the User and Open Innovation Workshop 2009 in Hamburg.

Bill Snyder of InfoWorld had a provocative article earlier this week about free riders in open source projects. Here is how it began:

"Leeches" -- that's how Dave Rosenberg, co-founder and former CEO of MuleSource, and now part of the founding team of RiverMuse, refers to companies that use open source technology but don't give back to the open source community. Companies like Cisco's Linksys subsidiary, whose routers rely on Linux. Companies like, whose Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) service depends on Eclipse Foundation's open source offerings.

Your ear doesn't have to be pressed to the ground for long to hear angry grumblings in the open source community about leeches, vampires, or freeloaders.

"The future of Eclipse is in danger," Michael Scharf, a member of the Eclipse Foundation's architecture council, said in an angry April blog post. "The problem is that there is no real pressure for companies to contribute back to the community and it is easy to use the Eclipse 'for free' for their own products. The Eclipse community should create peer pressure to prevent the freeloaders and parasites from getting away without punishment," he wrote.

Scharf likens the lack of contributions back to the community to the "tragedy of the commons," in which greedy individuals unthinkingly destroy a shared resource. And in an e-mail exchange, he put it this way: "The general mentality of the industry frustrates me; the attitude to take advantage of something like open source and not give back anything to the system."
It’s a silly notion. The Open Source Definition explicitly says everyone can use code for any reason — that what makes it open source. There is no responsibility to contribute changes or otherwise participate in its development.

I’ve been studying open source since 2000 and a few years ago co-authored a paper looking at movement ideology and its role on adoption of the Linux platform. From my own experience, I would disagree slightly with one point
It's not surprising that the discussion has become so polarized. There's long been a tension within the open source community between those who have seen it as a movement and those who believe it is a business.
If there was an ideological movement, it was really the Free Software movement — a desire to create code that’s perpetually available to hackers without corporate control.

The Open Source gang explicitly disclaimed ideology, positioning and organizing themselves to be more friendly to businesses creating and adopting open source. (There is some blurring of the two, since the GPL/LGPL of Linux is blurred by the more open source ethos of Linus Torvalds and the IBM/Intel/HP corporate support for Linux). My new friend Benjamin Mako Hill (a FSF board member) here at UOI 2009 points out that the Open Source types claim that open source is inherently better, whereas the fearless leader of the Free Software movement makes no such claim.

So open source is about making great code and giving it away free (free as in beer). It’s stupid to get upset about people using it for free, particularly free-riding is an inherently invariant human trait.

And the tragedy of the commons metaphor is inaccurate. Here in Hamburg, we have the end of the North Sea fisheries: that’s a real “tragedy of the commons.” Software is a non-rivalrous good, which means the good is no less valuable if 3 billion people use it than if 300 do so. (Don’t try that with a herring fishery).

The problem (other than the egos of a few F/OSS contributors) is never how many people use without contributing, but merely how many do. If a core development team of 20 people is adequate for 5,000 users, why is it inadequate for 5 million? Yes, if the 5 million are submitting bugs, that’s a lot of work to keep up, but if users are “not contributing” that would include not contributing bugs (since bugs are considered a contribution in the F/OSS world.)

The problem is also naturally self-correcting. If the team is understaffed, then users will get unhappy and complain or possibly switch. The firms that make money deploying OSS have to keep the bug fixes and improvements coming or their business will dry up — so that encourages them to step up and get involved.

If anything, the complaints about "leeches” is an effort by OS (or F/OSS) activists to de-legitimate their own movement. If the development and maintenance of the code depends on the passion and volunteer efforts of activists (who will inevitably burn out), then a given project or movement is not sustainable and viable over the long haul. If the technology is economically valuable, there will have to be people whose primary responsibilities (i.e. their job) including keeping the code vibrant and up to date.

Open source projects run by grown ups will focus on attracting new contributors. Whining may be the last gasp of projects about to burn out because they don’t have a sustainable inner core of contributors to keep the project going.


David Semeria said...

I can't see any conflict between open source (ie. publically viewable code) and the developer(s) making money from the code itself.

All other business models for open source either don't scale (support) or are incongruous (proprietary add-ons).

The beauty of any digital content is its negligible marginal distribution cost - OSS should leverage this.

Joel West said...

I never said there was anything wrong with profit and open source: I have an entire thread of posts on this blog about open source strategies. Neither "profit" nor "revenue" occur in the article at all.

The original InfoWorld article and my posting are about free-riding — using the code without reciprocating in some way. So it's about people using the code without paying in money or time or even bug reports.