Open Source, Age, and Money

A software revolution begins to question its sustainability and economic bargain

Open Source, Age, and Money

Open source software has been a major boon to the technology world, producing not only indispensable software but also a model some have sought to emulate. In our market, open source has served as an inspiration for many of our “open” philosophies. After all, if code could be collaboratively managed, why not science, scientific publishing, and scientific publishing technologies?

Economics might be part of the answer.

In a recent story in Businessweek about how open source software is being archived in a frozen vault in Norway, the reporter sprinkles various insights into the open source economy — and they aren’t encouraging.

First, there is the fact that the reason the open source software archive is being discussed at all is because Microsoft acquired Git and its open source software management system, GitHub. The consequences of the commercialization of open source software is an economic transformation that suffuses the article, leaving one wondering if the massive fortunes built on volunteer effort are recognized with some wistfulness or resentment by those working late nights to help others debug code and push updates.

As more fortunes and expectations stemming from open source become more apparent, the inequity is apparently increasingly obvious to Daniel Sternberg, a 48-year-old software developer in Sweden. He has been working on an open source communications system used in automobiles called “curl.” As Ashlee Vance, the reporter in the Businessweek piece writes:

. . . a large German automaker . . . asked that [Sternberg] fly to Germany immediately because an application Sternberg had written was causing the entertainment system software in 7 million cars to crash.

Sternberg had this to say:

I had to inform them that, you know, this is a spare-time project for me and that I have a full-time job and can’t just go to Germany for them. . . . Most of the days . . . I tear my hair when fixing bugs . . . I spend late evenings on curl when my wife and kids are asleep. I escape my family and rob them of my company to improve curl . . . in the dark (mostly) with my text editor and debugger.

Vance writes about the economic exploitation that’s occurred around open source software in a way that’s frank and a little reminiscent of some of the downsides we’ve been seeing when it comes to various other “open” approaches:

[Open source advocates] wanted to ensure the best computing tools and data wouldn’t be centralized and metered out by corporations. They wanted people to have the freedom to explore technology and ideas away from the watchful eyes of an overlord.

Yeah, well, oops. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and many others have used open source code to create grand, global advertising networks that track and analyze billions of people’s every move, online and off.

This is reminiscent of how OA is accelerating the consolidation of companies in our space, leaving a hollowed out middle and small firms on the edges.

Perhaps the greatest moment of economic irony in the story comes when Friedman reflects on how things might improve — by making the people who want to use the software or retain the services of coders pay the coders:

We would be successful if we could create a new middle class of open source developers. If you do this right, you create more innovation.

This is such an interesting development — open source practitioners realizing they’re being exploited, and now thinking that maybe an economic exchange of work for money (or software for money) might make sense.

The road from there to here isn’t confusing, but how we ever got on this path is a bit perplexing. That is, what set of conditions allowed people to think that volunteer effort was economically sustainable? I think it was a mix of youthful enthusiasm and economic disregard. Now that both of these are going away. Open source first-movers are no longer young, while the vast wealth of those who only exploited open source has made its advocates’ economic straits acutely obvious.

Lessons from this for me are all about financial viability, fairness, and power, and why none of these should ever be given up. It’s fine to ask people to pay you for work. In fact, it’s rational and just. Otherwise, you’re going to end up being and feeling exploited. As Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia who has spent decades at the fore of the free software movement, says:

We made good stuff, and it was turned into ammunition against our dreams.

And into Teslas for thousands of people who built on your sacrifices and idealism.

Some lessons are harder than others.

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