Happy Birthday, Cathedral & Bazaar

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.

6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Cathedral & Bazaar

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    “I mean, open source was about software, wasn’t it?”

    It was about sex, drugs, rock and roll, ending the war in Vietnam, building a new society of peace and love on the ashes of the old … you mean it wasn’t?

    I’m a big supporter of open source, for both economic and technical reasons. But there sure are a lot of snake-oil marketers around it, who read it as “Free (as in unpaid) labor”, and make their careers as this sort of business-guru.

  2. alan

    Good one Seth!

    Interesting to note that a decade later there are only a few who are managing to clearly define the differences between wisdom of the crowds, crowdsourcing, open source principles, as originally applied, and a myriad assortment of new manifestations and variations that have arisen through recent social software/trends on the net.

    The vast majority of commentators that are out there do apply the simplistic take, “Free (as in unpaid) labor” and appear to find it difficult to penetrate the complexity and elusive nature of recent trends as they unfold.

    The point about “snake-oil” is spot on. There does appear to be a maturation process taking place though. Over the past couple of months I have seen some commentary that indicates a deeper understanding and focus on some of the subtleties; Nicks recent post “The YouTube elite” would be one example.

    I do like Jeff Howe’s sound bite definition of crowdsoursing; “the application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.” Alan.

  3. Tom Lord

    It was about sex, drugs, rock and roll, ending the war in Vietnam, building a new society of peace and love on the ashes of the old … you mean it wasn’t?

    No, you’re thinking of the free software movement. In the 1970s, a lot of people in the “hippie left” (including some effective business people) shared the vague idea that computers are somehow liberating: people who have computers, in this view, and who have all of the tools program and reprogram those machines are somehow more free, more complete human beings. Computers were understood as instruments for expressing creativity, for simplifying work, for learning, and for communication.

    Intellectual property law came to be applied more widely to software. This was perceived (especially by Stallman) as a threat to liberating potential of computers. The free software movement formed initially around a tactical attack on the way software was being locked up: namely, the movement’s practical aim was to build a complete substitute for proprietary software systems and ensure that that substitute consisted of freely sharable, freely usable source code.

    The free software movement, then, was the one about software and licensing. It was also, believe it or not, about labor:

    As I recall, a lot of us working on the GNU software back then shared an assumption: that once the system was complete, there would always be work for systems programmers qualified to work on it, probably on an hourly basis, and mostly paying a little bit better than plumbing. It was well known that Stallman himself did occaisional $100/hr gigs: we imagined that completion of the GNU system would create a large market for such gigs, mostly working for direct end-users of the software.

    Open source came about for business reasons:

    The source code generated by the free software movement became commercially interesting: Before the GNU system could be completed, some businesses began to notice that the parts built so far had commercial use, largely as components in larger, proprietary software products. A good example: GCC (the compiler) was finished very early in the GNU project. Embedded systems hardware developers had a business need to sell their customers development kits, including a compiler. Compilers are expensive to develop and proprietary compilers are expensive to sub-license for a developer kit… so there is an opportunity there for a service company that supplies GCC to embedded systems companies as a component part for developers kits, redistributable without licensing fees. That’s just one example. There were others.

    The problem was that the political aims of the free software movement are anathema to business models that make component-wise use of an incomplete GNU system. If your customer sells or can imagine wanting to sell proprietary software it’s a little bit difficult to say “Oh, this compiler we’re offering you? Yeah, it was written by a bunch of folks who are working hard to make sure that nobody ever has to pay a licensing fee for software. Today a compiler, tomorrow the world. Oh, and, we give them all the code we write and several of them work for us.” It’s a little off message.

    Some brainstorming took place and open source was born. Open source was invented as a narrative story for the new class of businesses to tell — an alternative to the free software movement. It was invented to explain the participation of these companies in the world of source code sharing without endorsing — or even mentioning — the free software movement’s political aims or tactical objectives.

    “Why is it better,” Raymond’s documents seem to ask, “to develop components for proprietary systems in this no-license-fee, code-sharing zone?” (And he comes up with the now-familiar list: many eyeballs v. bugs, the magic cauldron of free labor, free testing, free end-user focus grouping, etc.) The yarn can be spun lots of different ways.

    So, Nick, open source was never about licensing (but was about licensing fees) and was never about software for software’s sake. It was about giving businesses a better story to tell their customers than “We faithfully contribute all our patches back to some guys who are out to smash proprietary software.”

    The form that story took was shaped by Raymond’s writing and his famous “fetchmail” experiment. In order to make it appear business-wise rational to share source code with external projects, it was necessary to say how that participation created greater efficiencies. Raymond found that, with a little song and dance, the crowd of people participating in the fetchmail project could be drawn upon as a source of free labor, in several ways. It’s not a good story to say that that free labor came around because he is a good salesman, and so the open source yarn imagines some vague “magic” property of crowds on the internet.

    Tim was right. Open source was never about licensing or software (except as petty technical matters). He writes: It was about viral distribution and marketing, network-enabled collaboration, low barriers to cooperation, and the wisdom of crowds. He’s right. Exactly right. Open source has been about exactly that same bullshit, all along.


  4. Nick Carr

    Thanks, Tom. One small note about “and so the open source yarn imagines some vague ‘magic’ property of crowds on the internet.” One thing that stands out in rereading the Cathedral & Bazaar paper is that it’s pretty hardnosed and unsentimental about the role and limitations of “the crowd.” The “vague ‘magic’ quality” spin must have come later.

  5. ESR

    Thanks for the anniversary wish. Truth to tell, I didn’t notice it go by — I was busy writing code. The world has backed me into being all sorts of things in the last decade — economic analyst, movement leader, technology guru, and occasionally rock star — but I remain, fundamentally, a programmer.

    I agree with you and differ with my friend Tim about this. Open source is, fundamentally, about the software. Spewing a lot of Web 2.0 hype around it confuses more than it clarifies.

    It’s legitimate to argue that open source software is strongly suggestive that similar arrangements that might work elsewhere. But it’s also way too easy to forget that some of the critical enabling factors for the open-source software movement are hard to replicate elsewhere.

    Of these, the most important is the fact that the correctness and performance of software can be objectively measured — whether or not an application segfaults is not a matter of political dispute.

    This, not the presence or absence of particular kinds of authority structures, is why Linux succeeds and Wikipedia fails.

  6. Orlando Agostinho

    Hi, Everybody

    These days, open-source is like a buzzword that means a lot of things, depends the point of view.

    Anyway, for me, the thing that really matters

    is the capacity for one person put their idea to the ecosystem, and that ecosystem respond successfully, and continuous that idea to keep better. Basically, Lives their dreams. One thing very important to make the thinks could happens.

    But how is that possible? Well, my opinion is the internet, in this case, give us the possibility to connect/communicate at the right time, at right place, and then, work together, and keep the step.

    But, Why to work together, if i don’t know the other person, from anywhere, and i don’t received any money for that? Well, I though, because, you gain credibility and reputation from their fellows in the community and from the rest of world. And, that, it’s power, anyway. Live your dreams like a child. Be someone in this world, leave your legacy!

    One thing, about this, if it’s possible that this model of open-source could work inside of the enterprises, properly? At this time, i can say that Google have one word to say. If you see how Google work inside, you could say that the model of open-source is working. But, How about from the rest of the world, and from other kind of enterprises? I don’t know sincerely, we’ll see. But in this era of globalization anything could happen!

    See Ya!

    Orlando Agostinho


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