Comment: Although we tend to view open source as a community, open source is essentially selfish, whether it’s a contributor or user.
Image: SIphotography, Getty Images / iStockphoto
“A lot of privilege is needed to be able to devote your efforts to full-time building of Free Software,” said Matt Wilson, a long-term employee of open source projects such as Linux. He is right. Although there are generally no legal obstacles for a potential participant to remedy, there are many more pragmatic restrictions such as rent. Although many developers prefer to spend all their time writing and releasing open source software, only a few can afford to do this, or at least on a full-time basis.
And that’s OK. Because maybe, just maybe, “privilege” means the wrong thing about open source software.
Millions make millions
Who has the privilege of writing to developers about open source software? According to GitHub COO Erica Brescia, 80% of developers who actively contribute to open source GitHub repositories come from outside the US. Of course, the vast majority of these developers do not contribute full time. According to an IDC analysis, approximately half (12.5 million) of the approximately 24.2 million global developers are paid to write full-time software, while another seven million are paid to write software part-time.
But this does not mean that they are paid to write open source software, both full-time and part-time.
SEE: Open source versus own software: a look at the pros and cons (TechRepublic Premium)
If 12.5 million full-time developers are paid worldwide, a small percentage of that number is paid to write open source software. There are just not many companies that clearly see a return on open source investments. Do you use open source? Of course. Contribute to open source? Not so much. This is something Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst mentioned as a problem ten years ago. It remains a problem.
As far as individual developers such as osxfuse maintenance worker Benjamin Fleischer are concerned, it is an ongoing struggle to find out how they can be paid for the valuable work they do. Returning to Wilson’s point, most developers simply do not have the privilege to spend their time giving away software.
Is this a bad thing?
There does not have to be a free lunch
When I asked if full-time open source is an activity that only the rich (individuals or companies) can enjoy, the developer Henrik Ingo disputed the assumptions underlying my question. “Why would we expect someone to contribute to open source at all?” he asked. Then he put the heart of the assumption that everyone should contribute to open source:
Some of us donate to charity, others receive that gift. Some do both, at different stages of life, or even at the same time. Yet none of those roles makes us a better person than the other. With open source, the idea is that we share an abundant source. When you go back to the cathedral and the bazaar, the idea of ”scratch your own itch” is common. You write a tool or repair an existing one because you needed it. Or you write code to learn. Or just social reasons! Whatever your reasons, no one should be expected to contribute code as a kind of tax that you have to pay to justify your existence on this planet.
In other words, open source is inherently self-interest and that self-interest brings its own benefits. Sometimes unpaid work becomes paid work, as was the case with Andy Oliver. Sometimes not. If the work is self-sufficient, it may not matter if that developer ever gets the “privilege” to spend all her time paying to write open source software. It may not matter whether that software is open source or closed.
SEE: How to build a successful career for developers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
For Ingo’s point, we may have to stop trying to impose ethical obligations on software developers and users, open source or otherwise. I personally think that more open source tends to be more good and, frankly, more self-interested, because it can be a great way to share the development burden. For downstream users, contributing can be a great way to minimize the accumulation of technical debts that can be collected on a fork.
But in any case there is no compelling reason to let others contribute. Open source is inherently self-interest, in the sense of Ingo, as a user or as a contributor. If I use open source software, it will benefit me. If I contribute, I benefit from it. Anyway, I (and we) are privileged.
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