Dissecting The Myth That Open Source Software Is Not Commercial

By: Karl Fogel ( @kfogel )

Associate editor: Stefano Zacchiroli ( @zacchiro )

Writing a myth-debunking piece for such an informed audience poses a certain risk. The readers of the IEEE Software Blog already know what open source software is, and many have probably written some. How can I be sure that anyone reading this even holds the belief about to be debunked?

Well, I can’t be completely sure, but can at least say that this myth is one I still encounter frequently among software specialists, including people who themselves use free software on a daily basis. (By the way, I will use the terms "free" — as in "free software" — and "open source" interchangeably here, because they are synonyms in the sense that they refer to the same set of software and the same set of pro-sharing software licenses.) The continued prevalence of this myth in many organizations is an obstacle to the adoption and production of open source software.

First, to state it clearly:

Myth: Open source is not commercial, or is even anti-commercial, and is driven mostly by volunteerism.

That’s really two myths, but they’re closely related and it’s best to address them together.

In mainstream journalism, open source is still almost always portrayed as a spare-time activity pursued by irrepressible programmers who band together for the love of coding and for the satisfaction they get from releasing free tools to the world. (See the bottom letter here for one example, but there are many, many more examples like that.) Surprisingly, this portrayal is widespread within the software industry too, and in tech journalism. There is, to be fair, a grain of truth to the legend of the volunteers: especially in the early days of open source — from the mid 1980s until the late 1990s (a period when it wasn’t even called "open source" yet, just "free software") — a higher proportion of open source development could legitimately have been called volunteer than is the case today.

But still not as high a proportion as one might think. Much free software activity was institutionally funded even then, although the institutions in question weren’t always aware of it. Programmers and sysadmins frequently launched shared collaborative projects simply to make their day jobs easier. Why should each person have to write the same network log analyzer by themselves, when a few people could just write it once, together, and then maintain it as a common codebase? That’s cheaper for everyone, and a lot more enjoyable.

In any case, intentional investment in open source by for-profit outfits started quite early on, and such investment has only been growing since (indeed, to the point now where meta-investment is happening: for example, my company, Open Tech Strategies , flourishes commercially by doing exclusively open source development and by advising other organizations on how to run open source projects). For a long time now, a great deal of widely-used open source software has been written by salaried developers who are paid specifically for their work on that software, and usually paid by for-profit companies. There is not space here to discuss all their business models in depth, nor how erstwhile competitors manage to collaborate successfully on matters of shared concern (though note that no one ever seems to wonder how they manage this when it comes to political lobbying). Suffice it to say that there are many commercial organizations in whose interests it is to have this growing body of code be actively maintained, and who have no need to "own" or otherwise exercise monopolistic control over the results.

A key ingredient in this growth has been the fact that all open source licenses are commercial licenses. That is, they allow anyone to use the software for any purpose, including commercial purposes. This has always been part of the very definition of a "free software" or "open source" license, and that’s why there is no such thing as software that is "open source for non-commercial use only", or "open source for academic use only", etc.

An important corollary of this is that open source software automatically meets the standard government and industry definition of "Commercial Off-The-Shelf" (COTS) software: software that is commercially available to the general public. COTS doesn’t mean you must pay money — though you might choose to purchase a support contract, which is a fee for service and is very different from a licensing fee. COTS essentially just means something that is equally available to all in the marketplace, and open source software certainly fits that bill.

So: open source is inherently commercial, and the people who write it are often paid for their work via normal market dynamics.

Why, then, is there a persistent belief that open source is somehow non-commercial or anti-commercial, and that it’s developed mainly by volunteers?

I think this myth is maintained by several mutually reinforcing factors:

  • Open source’s roots are as an ideologically-driven movement (under the name "free software"), opposed to monopoly control over the distribution and modification of code. Although that movement has turned out to be successful in technical and business terms as well, it has not shed its philosophical roots. Indeed, I would argue, though will not here due to space limitations, that its philosophical basis is an inextricable part of its technical and business success. (It is worth considering deeply the fact that merely being anti-monopoly is enough to get a movement a reputation for being anti-commercial; perhaps it is the roots of modern capitalism as actually practiced that need closer examination, not the roots of open source.)
  • For a time, various large tech companies whose revenues depend mainly on selling proprietary software on a fee-for-copying basis made it a standard part of their marketing rhetoric to portray open source as being either anti-commercial or at any rate unconcerned with commercial viability. In other words: don’t trust this stuff, because there’s no one whose earnings depend on making sure your deployment is successful. This tactic has become less popular in recent years, as many of those companies start to have open-source offerings themselves. I hope to see it gradually fade away entirely, but its legacy lives on in the many corporate and government procurement managers who were led to believe that open source is the opposite of commercial.
  • Many companies now offer software-as-a-service based on open source packages with certain proprietary additions — those additions being their "value-add" (or, less formally, their "secret sauce"), the thing that distinguishes their SaaS offering from you just deploying the open source package on which it is based, and the thing that not coincidentally has the potential to lock you in to that provider.
    Unfortunately, companies with such offerings almost always refer to the open source base package as the "community edition", and their proprietized version as the "commercial edition" or sometimes "enterprise edition". A more accurate way to label the two editions would be "open source" and "proprietary", of course. But, from a marketing point of view, that has the disadvantage of making it plain what is going on.
  • Software developers have multiple motivations, and it’s true that in open source, some of their motivation is intrinsic and not just driven by salary. It’s actually quite common for open source developers to move from company to company, being paid to work on the same project the whole time; their résumé and work product are fully portable, and they take advantage of that. Open source means that one cannot be alienated from the fruits of one’s labor, even when one changes employers. There is nothing anti-commercial about this — indeed, it could be viewed as the un-distortion of a market — but one can certainly see how observers with particular concerns about the mobility of labor might be inclined to fudge that distinction.

Finally, I think people also want to believe in a semi-secret worldwide army of happy paladins acting for the good of humanity. It would be so comforting to know they’re out there. But what’s actually going on with open source is much more complex and more interesting, and is firmly connected to commerce.


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