Yesterday, Tim O’Reilly noted that Eric Raymond’s book The Cathedral & the Bazaar, which O’Reilly’s firm published in 1999, has been listed as a favorite business book in a special section of US News and World Report. What I haven’t seen anybody note, though, is that today happens to mark the tenth anniversary of the day Eric Raymond first presented his original “Cathedral & Bazaar” paper, at the 1997 International Linux Kongress in Wurzburg, Germany.
So let me be the first (maybe) to say: Happy Birthday, Cathedral & Bazaar, and congratulations to Eric Raymond for writing such an influential work.
I discuss one aspect of the legacy of Raymond’s paper in an article in the new issue of Strategy & Business. I look in particular at how Raymond’s cathedral-and-bazaar metaphor has been widely applied beyond the world of software and how, in related fashion, the idea of “open source” has become a metaphor used to describe pretty much any sort of communal or peer-production means of creating goods or services.
O’Reilly’s post about Raymond’s book is a good example of the phenomenon. He writes:
People should give more thought to the straight line that connects open source and Web 2.0 … Open source developers were merely the canaries in the coal mine, the alpha geeks who told us something about what happens when a community adapts itself to the principles that drive the internet. Open source wasn’t about licensing or even about software. It was about viral distribution and marketing, network-enabled collaboration, low barriers to cooperation, and the wisdom of crowds.
I don’t have a problem with stretching metaphors, and I do think that Raymond’s cathedral-and-bazaar analogy is helpful in thinking about a lot things, but it seems to me that claiming that open source “wasn’t about licensing or even about software” ends up throwing more darkness than light. I mean, open source was about software, wasn’t it? When we lose sight of its origins, the concept starts to become very fuzzy very fast. As many others have pointed out, software production has unique characteristics that lend it particularly well to the peer-production model. When you apply the model elsewhere, you don’t get the same results. It’s important to maintain a distinction between the metaphor and the thing itself.