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Open source as metaphor

August 08, 2006

Ethan Zuckerman provides an extensive report on what seems to have been an extraordinarily illuminating Wikimania panel exploring the differences between the production of open source software and the production of Wikipedia. One thing that becomes clear from the discussion is how dangerous it is to use "open source" as a metaphor in describing other forms of participative production. Although common, the metaphor almost always ends up reducing the complex open-source model to a simplistic caricature.

The discussion also sheds light on a topic that I've been covering recently: Yochai Benkler's contention that we are today seeing the emergence of sustainable large-scale production projects that don't rely on either the pricing system or management structure. Benkler's primary example is open source software. But panelist Siobhan O’Mahony's description of the evolution of open source projects reveals that they have become increasingly interwoven with the pricing system and increasingly dependent on formal management structure:

She argues that the F/OSS [free/open source software] model has now matured, with formalized governance structures, and that it’s very useful to look at the non-profit foundations that have helped these projects deal with firms and a commercial ecosystem. Her interest comes in part from the “myth” of F/OSS - that we’re hackers, we don’t need marketing, we’re a meritocracy - that’s not what really happens, as most serious F/OSS contributors will tell you.

From 1993-2000, many F/OSS projects were self-governing, accepting volunteer contributions with most participants motivated by the cause, ideology and idealism. From 2000 - 2006, the majority of volunteers are sponsored by vendors, well-supported by in-kind donations of hardware, marketing and legal services. Most commercial-grade projects have incorporated as nonprofit foundations with formal governance structures. The foundations hold assets, protect projects from liability, and present project to the outside world, including brokering agreements with commercial firms.

Certainly, the idea of community is important to understanding the origins, structure, and development of the open source model, and many open source contributors are motivated by rewards that can't be measured in dollars and cents. But it's hard at this point to make the case that open source exists in some purified space outside the world of pricing and management.

UPDATE: Two excellent retorts to this post, one from Tim Bray, the other from Assaf at Labnotes. They argue, among other things, that in trying to counter an oversimplification about open source, I've made my own oversimplification. A point well taken.


But it's hard at this point to make the case that open source exists in some purified space outside the world of pricing and management.

.. and the law.

Posted by: eszter [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2006 06:12 AM

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