PDF Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project

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May 29, Karl Fogel. Businessman image via Shutterstock. Be the first to share this article with your network! Karl Fogel has been working in free software since , as a programmer and later as a specialist in open source project management. Be the First to Comment!

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What is FOSS - FOSS4SMEs

Indeed, there is a risk that an influx of capital could destroy the community-driven foundation that has sustained open source development for nearly half a century. This was a time when pioneers of computer science like Marvin Minsky rubbed shoulders with a new generation of hackers such as Richard Stallman and Guy Steele, who would go on to fundamentally change the world of computer programming in their own right. Steele was instrumental in documenting and creating programming languages like Lisp and Scheme, while Stallman laid the foundation for the free software movement, the most significant challenge to the arbiters of technology since Luddism.


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Nevertheless, the spirit of the lab made an impression on Stallman. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. The underlying principles of the free software movement were formally codified in when Stallman published the GNU General Public License GPL , now more widely known as copyleft , which set the stage for an explosion in free software development. Two years later, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student with a hot temper , used the GPL to release his free operating system kernel, Linux.

Following Linux, dozens of other notable free software programs were released under GPL or a GPL-compliant license , including the Apache web server software and the MySQL database engine, both of which are still widely used today. Unlike the digital castles-in-the-air being churned out in the offices of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, free software worked. Stallman and his acolytes had demonstrated that it was possible to make great software that could be modified to meet the individual needs of users by combining ethical conviction and technical chops.

For a brief moment in the mids, it seemed like the future of software was free—as in freedom. Then in , a programmer named Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar , an essay that analyzed the process of developing free software.


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  4. In essence, Raymond was making the case for the efficiency of free software development. Since it was developed out in the open, anyone could look under the hood of free software programs, which meant that any bugs that might be lurking in the code were more likely to be discovered quickly. There was just one problem: The free software movement was burdened with a major ethical component, and ethics are bad for business.

    In retrospect, the marketing campaign was a phenomenal success. Although open source software was rapidly embraced by many of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley, economists struggled to explain how these projects, which bucked all the conventions of the marketplace, could be so successful. By that point, the standard explanation peddled by the free software crowd—that free software development could be sustained on the basis of the ethical imperatives of freedom and altruism—no longer seemed adequate to account for the rapid emergence and adoption of a project like Linux.

    To that point, no other industry in history had ever produced such a technically demanding project on that scale by relying solely on the goodwill of its contributors. In short, Lerner and Tirole claimed to demonstrate that the main motivating factor in open source development were the economic benefits that accrued to the developers, not some deep-seated desire to give the world free software.

    In terms of immediate benefits, Tirole and Lerner argued, open source programmers are either directly compensated for their work through their employment at a company that develops the software or they make the software more useful to themselves by fixing a bug or adding a feature. Today it is the most cited paper on the economics of open source by a large margin. These changes were due in large part to the creation of Git, an open source tool that allows for distributed collaboration on software development, in Services built around Git, most notably GitHub, have greatly accelerated the pace of open source development and drastically lowered the barrier to entry for new developers.

    The rapid rise in the number of open source contributors is often pointed to as a validation of its development paradigm. In the past decade, however, an increasing number of FOSS developers began to speak about burnout from maintaining open source repositories. Many developers pointed to a sense of user entitlement as the main source of this burnout. As the developer William Gross described the issue , the rising tide of companies that depend on open source software means that open source developers are deluged with feature requests and issues with the code and many of these companies expect that their improvements and issues should take priority.

    In other words, it seemed as though many popular projects in the open source community were poised to become victims of their own success. In an echo of Lerner and Tirole, many FOSS developers began to wonder whether a software development model that relied on the goodwill of individual volunteers was sustainable at scale. Just defining the problem was tough. Some developers saw it as a cultural problem, one that could be addressed by teaching newcomers the rules of being a good user and teaching maintainers that it was okay to turn down contributions. Others saw it, fundamentally, as an economic problem that could be solved with more funding.

    Still others denied that there was any systemic problem at all.

    In , Nadia Eghbal left her job as a venture capitalist and set out to discover why it was so hard for many open source projects to monetize their work. To Eghbal, there seemed to be a contradiction at play.

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    Many popular open source projects had all the hallmarks of a successful startup: Rapid adoption, a large user base, and low development costs. Yet most of these projects were anathema to venture capital, where investors are only interested in scaling software if it means large returns. The problem, then, was to identify alternative mechanisms that could be used to sustainably fund open source. To find out solutions, Eghbal went to the source: The maintainers of open source projects. After a year of interviewing hundreds of open source developers, Eghbal published Roads and Bridges , which is arguably most extensive research on the economics of open source software development ever undertaken.

    This is a technical term in social science that describes a resource that can be used by anyone regardless of whether they have paid for it—like roads and bridges, for example. Open source is, by its very definition, a non-excludable good. The free-rider problem is related to the tragedy of the commons, which describes a scenario where all the members of a community benefit from unregulated access to a common good, but no one is incentivized to individually bear the cost of maintaining that good. When each member of the community uses the common good according to their own self-interest, the good eventually becomes depleted and available to no one in the community.

    In the case of FOSS, the common good is the billions of line of open source code. Turning the software into a private good would undermine the entire point of open source development: The efficient production of quality software that is available to anyone who needs it.

    On the other hand, regulating the production of open source software for example, establishing an organization similar to the National Science Foundation to distribute publicly-funded grants to open source software projects undermines the main advantages of open source development. Furthermore, regulation would also undermine the spirit of open source development insofar as it could result in gatekeeping that determines who can contribute and who can consume the resource.

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    The Essential Open Source Reading List: 21 Must-Read Books

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