Open Source and the Economy

Oct 22, 2008 / By Sheeri Cabral

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I was reading Savio Rodrigues’ post, The economy and open source, in which he responds to Andrew Keen’s thoughts that a bad economy will see fewer open source contributions.

Now, Keen feels that people will contribute less during bad financial times:

The hungry and cold unemployed masses aren’t going to continue giving away their intellectual labor on the Internet in the speculative hope that they might get some “back end” revenue. “Free” doesn’t fill anyone’s belly; it doesn’t warm anyone up.

I know several volunteer open source developers — I consider this to be a “role” that someone plays. A person may be *employed* as an open source developer (say, working at Sun on MySQL) but may also contribute to another open source project off-the-clock. I would consider that person to be a volunteer open source developer for the off-the-clock project.

At any rate…very few people volunteer as some kind of investment with a monetary return. I’ve been volunteering since I was 14, and I did not stuff and seal thousands of envelopes thinking about a return on my investment. Sure, I may have been enticed by something (free pizza) but in the end, where people donate their time and money is a very personal thing. They donate time and money to causes they believe in.

Human rights or open source software, it’s all the same. Yes, I feel good when I volunteer, whether it’s video recording presentations for free download or being logistical support for a friend who does the Pan-Mass Challenge every year. Do I get something in return? Usually; certainly the volunteer work I’ve done in the MySQL space has helped my career.

But that’s not WHY I do it. I do it because I want to. I see a need and I fill it, and just doing that is enough. The benefits are gravy. You wouldn’t eat a meal of just gravy, but it’s certainly nice to have *on top* of a meal. There are folks who volunteer for the benefits; they quickly change their expectations or stop contributing. A volunteer is not one who says “show me the money”. They cease to be a volunteer at that point!

I believe that Keen is correct; we will see a drop-off of people volunteering code. But that will be due to the financial bad times causing people to have less time and money. If a good coder is in dire straits, they can’t spend all their free time coding for an open source project; they have to take some of that time and spend it on looking for a job, working a 2nd job, whatever.

But if everyone volunteered for some kind of tangible benefit, there’d be a lot less good in the world.

4 Responses to “Open Source and the Economy”

  • Arjen Lentz says:

    Yea see I’m not sure it’ll really drop. If a good coder is in need of a job, sitting at home isn’t going to fix that. Nor is running around locally, often. They will need to get the word out that they’re a good coder, and that is best done by producing real code for real tools and applications out there. SO I reckon, good coders who are smart also will actually increase their contributions, either more into specific projects or into more different projects.
    It makes sense from their job-marketing perspective!

    And I agree fully with you on the motivation. Money is not a motivator for OSS contributions.

  • Sheeri Cabral says:

    Arjen,

    What you say is true in theory. However you can’t get a job that you don’t apply for. And if you’re crunched for money, you’re more apt to work on finding a job than on building your portfolio.

    Sadly, it’s hard to buy groceries with “I’m building my portfolio,” even though as you point out, it’s a good investment.

    You agree that money is not a motivator. However I was careful to use terms like “benefits” to cover more than just money. The volunteer OSS developers I know don’t submit code to gain respect. It’s a fringe benefit, just as money is. And just as money is, it’s still gravy.

  • Lukas says:

    I also think that most people that get company time to work on OSS stuff, also put a fair amount of spare time on top of that for OSS stuff. Few of us just clock out and turn our computers off.

  • alex says:

    giving LINUX away for free is price dumping.

    how Microsoft reacted was to add coupons to certain PC magazines, so people could order a service pack when they really need it.

    WIKIPEDIA is simply stealing workforce from the people.

    and amending all rights to data in the name of creative commons and GDFL is not the way to go (for instance, MIXX).

    OPENSOURCE is often indeed closed source.
    there are no PDFs and help files, no documentation, sometimes even the source code is not documentated at all.
    it might be possible to recompile some parts, but no one can really maintain it without insider knowledge.

    and yet, sometimes there are files missing.
    you need to know someone to get in!

    price dumping the market with “free software” is not very social. they should go commercial with their LINUX etc., if they want to survive.

    if i use LINUX for some purpose, i want a commercial product, consumer rights etc.

    GPL does not include any obligation to documentate, only that it is not allowed to modify GPL itself.
    who really writes letters to the FSF?
    so it is some sort of fake, and indeed says nothing.

    people have been able to give away software before GPL, and they will be after GPL.

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