It’s common to hear commentators and business leaders justifying practices that wouldn’t be recognised as “open source” by many of us on the grounds that they have to make money somehow. Actions that deny the software freedoms of end users – and even developers – appear like a fungus, spuriously justified by the need for profit.
Phrases like “we can’t give everything away” garnish the thought, and it’s easy to be drawn into sympathising with them. But they are wrong. Open source itself is not about making money – that’s the job of its participants. Open source is the pragmatic product and projection of software freedom.
Open source is what happens when several different people choose to work together on the same code base rather than working separately, liberated to do so by the four freedoms that the licence protects. They use an OSI-approved licence and gather as an open source community around the resulting free-software commons. Each of them is there for their own reasons; each covers their own costs and contributes the code they choose to. There is no pooling of funds to pay for work to be done because everyone is solely responsible for their own costs. The only funding pool a project needs is to cover the costs no-one should bear alone, such as for project infrastructure and administration.
As a consequence, there is no fiscal power that any contributor holds over others, so no-one has the right to tell the others what to do. An open source community is an example of a group of people choosing to synchronise a fragment of their mutual interests, each at their own expense, for the benefit of all involved including themselves1. While there may sometimes be a non-profit organisation for administrative reasons, an open source community is inherently neither a non-profit or a for-profit organisation; profit is an orthogonal concept.
Now, if the motivation of one or two of the participants is to then offer the software as part of a “freemium” or “open core” plan, that doesn’t mean the whole project is there to serve their activity. That’s just the motivation of one or two participants at work. They are not giving away their work without payment; they are providing the contents of the commons at the same price at which they acquired it, or in a few cases the price at which they agreed to make it available by releasing it under an open source licence.
As long as their activity doesn’t “take over” and disrupt the interests of others, no-one minds too much. Your motivations for participating are rarely my business. There’s a “long tail” out there, made of a large number of others who have their own motivations to be there and who are covering their own costs as a part of executing on those motivations. And the commons isn’t spoiled in any way by being more widely used.
Mesh of Motives
Some of the contributors might be present for direct profit from the code, but the community as a whole is actually a mesh of different participants, all with their own motivational models and all paying their own way to achieve them outside the context of the community. Communities do not have business models. If the motivational model of some participants involves business, that harms no-one. But the community itself is about the liberty to align interests, not about the presence or absence of profit – that is purely the domain of the participants.
That word “free” is so deceptive to English-speakers, and in this case it sets a frame that allows an incorrect conclusion to be drawn about the community. Open source communities are purely about liberty and code; money is orthogonal, and we should not let it cloud the issue of community freedoms.
- Before I get accused of saying open source doesn’t involve altruism, let me be clear that I don’t think that. I do, however, reject the definition of altruism as being “an act that benefits others but not me.”
[An earlier version was published in ComputerWorldUK]