Open Source Does Not Need "Monetising"


It's common to hear commentators and business leaders justifying practices that wouldn't be recognised as "open source" on the grounds that they have to make money somehow.

Phrases like "we can't give everything away" garnish the thought, and it's easy to be drawn into sympathising with them. But they are wrong. Open source itself is not about making money - that's the job of its participants.

Open source is what happens when several different people choose to work together on the same code base rather than working separately. They use an OSI-approved licence and gather as an open source community around the resulting free-software commons. Each of them is there for their own reasons; each covers their own costs and contributes the code they choose to. There is no pooling of funds to pay for work to be done because everyone is solely responsible for their own costs.

As a consequence, there is no fiscal power that any contributor holds over others, so no-one has the right to tell the others what to do. An open source community is an example of a group of people choosing to synchronise a fragment of their mutual interests, each at their own expense, for the benefit of all involved including themselves1. While there may be a non-profit organisation for administrative reasons, an open source community is not a non-profit or a for-profit.

Now, if the motivation of one or two of the participants is to then offer the software as part of a "freemium" or "open core" plan, that doesn't mean the whole project is there to serve their activity. That's just the motivation of one or two participants at work. They are not giving away their work without payment; they are giving away the contents of the commons at the same price at which they acquired it.

As long as their activity doesn't "take over" and disrupt the interests of others, no-one minds too much. Your motivations for participating are rarely my business. There's a "long tail" out there too, made of a large number of others who have their own motivations to be there and who are covering their own costs as a part of executing on those motivations. And the commons isn't spoiled in any way by being more widely used.

Mesh of Motives

Some of the contributors might be present for direct profit from the code, but the community as a whole is actually a mesh of different participants, all with their own motivational models and all paying their own way to achieve them outside the context of the community. If those motivational models involve business, that harms no-one. But the community itself is about the liberty to align interests, not about the presence or absence of profit. Once again "free" deceives english speakers...

  1. Before I get accused again of saying open source doesn't involve altruism, let me be clear that I don't think that. I do, however, reject the definition of altruism as being "an act that benefits others but not me."