Free and Open Source Software Developers Working for Free (Economics 101)
One still occasionally hears people wonder why free and open source software developers "work for free." We aren't talking about developers that work at a company or university. We're talking about all the others that aren't being paid a salary to develop this software. This came up again at the end of the week when Matt Asay commented on the latest Linux contribution numbers published by Jonathon Corbett.
Lot's of non-developers will be scratching their head at the 15% unaffiliated contributions. But here's the clue. No one is working for free in an economic sense. There were a couple of great quotes from economist Michael Boskin in an interview last week about virtual world economies (Gaia Online) that equally apply in the free and open source developer world [emphasis added]:
Q. What do you say to people who don't really understand this whole idea of a virtual economy? How do you explain it to them when someone asks, "You're going to be doing what?"
Boskin: Well, there is a very real phenomenon going on here. It happens to be in the virtual world, but it's a real phenomenon. Millions of people are spending their valuable time and using their skill to inhabit these places.
Q. Can you talk about the similarities between the Gaia economy and that of the United States?
Boskin: I think the fundamental similarity is that you have people making decisions on how to allocate their time and use their skills.
People value their skill sets differently in different contexts, but value them they do. I use writers as an example to explain this to non-developers: a technical or marcomm writer may spend 8 hours a day at their paid job, then spend their evenings and weekends teaching ESL classes at the local college, working on a newsletter for their local church/synagogue/neighbourhood organization, helping a child with a school project, and writing a sonnet to their significant other (or the next great novel or screenplay). In every case they're using their writing skills; they're just valuing them differently in different contexts.
There's another way to look at it. Not every market involves exchanging money for goods and services. A gem of an economics book ("Reinventing the Bazaar" by John McMillan, 2002, p. 135) points out that well designed markets, regardless of market type, have a number of things in common:
- Information flows smoothly.
- People can be trusted to live up to their promises.
- Competition is fostered.
- Property rights are protected, but not overprotected.
- Damaging side effects on third parties are curtailed.
Let's look at well run free and open source project communities in terms of such market dynamics.
- Information flows smoothly. [Transparency of community, process, code, policy, bugs, discussions.]
- People can be trusted to live up to their promises. [The project's license is a social contract. It's governance culture is well understood and supported.]
- Competition is fostered. [What fixes and features are accepted, and which ones don't make it.]
- Property rights are protected, but not overprotected. [Code copyright management and licensing is handled properly in well run projects.]
- Damaging side effects on third parties are curtailed. [The point here from the book is that WHEN real damage might be done to third parties, there are ways governments can involve themselves in the market to curtail such effects, whether by defining/enforcing property rights, taxes/incentives, or policy/regulation. The community's license comes to mind.]
For those that want to dig deep on who develops free and open source software and why, I would encourage spending some time with the work led by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh published through the International Institute of Infonomics.