Archive for June 10th, 2009

Freeriding, participation and another modest proposal

There has been in the past several articles related to “freeriding“, that is the use of OSS without any apparent form of reciprocal contribution, be it in a monetary form, or in terms of source code. I am not sympathetic to this view in general, because it masks an ill-posed question, that is “if you use someone code, are you required to give something back?”

It is in my view an ill posed question, because it mixes at the same level ethical and economic questions, and because it clearly avoids all the potential non-code contributions that are implicit in use, even in absence of back contributions. First of all, about ethical participation: open source code is available for all, without any form of implicit additional moral burden; the only rules that govern it are those that are laid out in the license itself. So, if the license for example allows for unconstrained use of a binary product derived from OSS code (for example, Eclipse) than it should not be expected from the majority of use any incremental contribution of any kind – it is simply not realistic to imagine that suddendly, all the Eclipse users should start contributing back because they are feeling guilty.

It is different when we think in economic terms, that is in terms of R&D sharing: in this frame of reference every user and potential contributors has an implicit model that gives a reason (or not) to contribute something, for example when there is an opportunity for reducing the cost of future maintenance by making it part of the official code base. This is a much more complex activity, because it requires first of all a high level of comprehension of the distributed development model that underlies most OSS projects, and then a clear and unambiguous path for contributing back something; this kind of contribution channel is clearly present only in some very high level and sophisticated projects, like the Eclipse consortium.

The second misunderstanding is related to the “hidden” role of users and non-code contributors. Most project (even our FLOSSMETRIC one) measure only code contributions – but this is just a small part of the potential contributions that may be provided. As the contributors map of shows:

OpenOffice people count area map

There are many non-code contributions, like native language support, documentation, marketing, word-of-mouth dissemination, and so on. Even the fact that the software is used is a value: it can be for example used in marketing material for an eventual monetization effort, and is indirect demonstration of quality (the more users you have, the more inherent value the software may be inferred to be valuable for at least a category of users). I understand the gripes of commercial OSS vendors that would like to monetize every use of a software product, and discover that their software is used in some large company without giving back any monetary contribution. I took as an example Alfresco: “General Electric uses Alfresco’s software throughout the company while paying us nothing…and yet we’re having a banner year.” While I am sure that Matt Asay would love to have GE as a paying customer, even the reference is a proof of quality of Alfresco, and can be considered to be a valuable asset.

Users contribute back in terms of participation in forums, in providing direct and indirect feedback, and much more. Of course only a small part of the users contribute back, a phenomenon that was apparent in most social phenomenon well before the internet, and should be no surprise to anyone.

As a side note, as a continuation of my previous hypotesis on what may be the most efficient structure for maintaining the advantages of OSS resource sharing and proprietarization, I received many comments on the fact that most projects are small, and creating a full-scale Eclipse-like consortium (or something like OW2) is not really sustainable. But it is possible to imagine a OW2-like consortia that handles under its own umbrella the back-contribution to a large number of independent project, for each one managing the three core interactions (technical, social and legal) that are prerequisite for every completely verified contribution. Think about it: imagine yourself as a developer working in a company, and after some work the CEO allows for a linux-based product to be launched. As such, you make some patches and contributions, and instead of maintaining your own branch, you try to send back your patches. To who? Is it really that easy to discover the kernel mailing list? What is the proper form? If you need to send back patches to GCC (for example, for some embedded board processor) who do you contact? Is it really that easy to do? On the side of the project, how are contributions managed?

Each question is a stumbling block for a potential contribution. Of course, the larger project to have a channel – but sometimes it is not that easy to find and manage properly. I believe that an independent structure can increase the contribution process by providing:

  • social skills: what is the proper contribution form? What groups and networks should be contacted?
  • technical skills: what is the proper form? Is the contribution fulfilling the project internal rules for contribution?
  • legal skills: has the contribution the proper legal attribution, has it been verified, has it been properly checked?
  • marketing: show that software exist, that it can be used, and how.

Such a structure may be created for a limited cost, especially by leveraging the many voluntary activities that are now scattered in many individual projects. Instead of making yet another repositry, a local government could probably spend their money better in making sure that there is a realistic feedback channel. If this effort can increase the participation probability even by a small percentage, the potential return on investment is significant.

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