Open Source Work

So I may have my beef with with the software as freedom, [1] none the less I think we can learn some pretty interesting things about freedom and politics from thinking about what open source means. In this vein recently, I've been thinking more about the economics of open source, and as I'm prone to an interest in creative business models that find interesting ways to generate income in unique and special ways. Here's some thoughts on the "politics/economy of work in open source."

On some deep level open source software resists the traditional scarcity economic model. There is no property, intellectual or otherwise, that you can exchange for money in a way resembling the normal way. With that option off of the table the open source community has to come up with other ways of doing business, and because scarcity (in another sense) is the mother of creativity, what folks in the open source world do to make a living is pretty interesting.

There are a few of major ways that people in the open source community make money:

1. Software-as-Service: Rather than sell people software, companies sell service agreements. This is nifty, because it lets groups of people get support for open source, it's cheaper for users than buying software and service contracts, and also it means that service based businesses are smaller, because it's more efficient to run a smaller company, and because anyone with the right skills can provide the services and not just the copyright holder for the OS. So customers get a more tailored experiences. The con, is that the better software is, the less people need support for it.

2. Custom programing. Basically individual programers consult with users to develop custom solutions around people's needs, using open source tools. Ideally some of what people write gets contributed back into the repositories (as libraries/tools), and this is particularly suited to very modular/adpatable projects like drupal or debian

3. Certification. A company/programer reviews the components and develops an independent release of an open source product that they've certified. The best example of this is the RedHat certified linux versus Fedora Core. Which is mostly useful in the "enterprise world."

4. Service Software. This is a mashup of other models, and I think it better to lead with examples: Wikimedia/Wikipedia/Wikia and DabbleDB andsmalltalk/seaside. Basically, a company uses an open source product to develop a service which generates income via subscriptions, advertising, and donations, which supports developers who contribute to the core project.

The most interesting effect that all of these models (but most clearly in the first two) have is that money isn't being exchanged for "a thing," but rather for work.

Which when you think about it, after we remove a few layers of mystification around "intellectual property," the only thing that's truly scarce is labor. Folks in the open source movement have had to realize this, and I think the ripple effect of this could be really profound. More important than even the "open access" to source code.

Twenty years ago (or more) having open source code was really rather important, but even then and more so now, open source code wasn't a great benefit to most users. The number of linux users who've ever looked at the kernel source is probably pretty small. Thus I think it's not a stretch to say that the ideology of open source (as opposed to free software) is as much about pushing further a different way of thinking about work and "ownership," as it is about "freedom" or some more specific technological goal.

Thoughts? Reactions?

[1]My father neatly summarized my critique as one against "lifestyle politics," which is apt. I think the problem in this case--like many--is one where personal beliefs and actions are in themselves thought to have a concrete impact on a larger political/economic situation, when I think politics happens at the next stage where you take your personal experiences and situations and work to influence/empower others. That is, if you just use free software (and refuse to use non-free software), you will do nothing to undermine the commercialized software industry, but if you use free software and you contribute back to the projects, and you help other people use free software, and you use free software to contribute to other efforts/projects things that is (potentially) a powerful political act. Potentially.
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