Moving open source beyond software while maintaining the public spirit?

Paul B. de Laat


The phenomenon of open source software (OSS) is a technical miracle on the one hand: thousands of volunteers work together on a globally distributed basis. In order to keep chaos at bay, quite a range of formal governance tools have been developed. On the other hand, OSS is a socio-political miracle: hackers cooperate for a public cause, without receiving any payment. Source code effectively becomes a public good, free for everyone to use, modify, and (re)distribute. A commons is created with, as a rule, some regulations attached.

This model of `peer production of source code’ can be applied in many other contexts. However, these extensions often create private value only. Some extensions compare more closely with OSS by employing open source (OS) tools for the creation of public value. I focus on the latter here, for two reasons. In this age of privatization the publicly accessible commons is under siege. This is to be regretted while a vibrant commons is vital for creativity. Furthermore, the OSS movement serves to mobilize and further altruistic motivations. Careful attendance to practices that nurture such civic virtue is a societal interest. My main question therefore becomes: In what ways the model of open source (OS) can be extended beyond software while keeping its public spirit intact? The answer is twofold: (1) OS can be applied to products other than software, and (2) OS can be embedded in existing institutions.


Extension of the (publicly spirited) model of OSS to other informational products is already underway. While Open Access and Wikipedia are well known examples, my focus is on some newer ones. Peer-to-peer sharing is successful in Flickr, where pictures are posted and usually tagged as well. These are made available for everybody, with a creative commons license attached. Furthermore, on volunteers publish (and tag) links they deem to be interesting. Peer-to-peer production is entering the new domain of film, which, I argue, gives OS a new twist. `Swarm of Angels’ is a typical OS movie project. Volunteers participate in script writing (using wiki software) and vote about the choice of script, deadlines and publicity material. The finished product is to be released with a creative commons license that allows non-commercial remixing. Notice though, that participants have to pay an entry fee (of 25 Euro) while the production crew has to be paid a normal salary.

On the other hand, if we turn our attention to physical products, peer production à la OSS seems farther away. For one thing, any type of product requires people investing hours of their precious time. Physical ones, however, also require monetary investments for equipment, materials and the like. For another, as a more subtle nuance, `material’ R&D usually involves tacit knowledge. While OSS can thrive on explicit knowledge alone as evidenced in source code releases, normally R&D has to cope with this implicitness. That is why participants in international R&D alliances, no matter which virtual tools are applied, usually meet face-to-face from time to time. In all, I argue that peer production of physical products tends to have a more local centre of gravity and less emphasis on formal governance tools or IPRs. These assertions are underpinned by looking at `user innovation’ of sports equipment, as analyzed by von Hippel et alii.


OS can also become part of the `business model’ of existing companies. Let me treat the case of software first. Leaving aside the approach of `free-riding’ upon OS products, companies may, first, try to tap developers’ talent. OS marketplaces are created, on which software assignments are posted for (paid) execution by volunteers. Secondly, a platform for the production of source code may be mounted on the Internet, accessible to all (`corporate OS network’). Thirdly, in view of enriching the value of a particular hardware or software platform, outside developers may be invited to develop applications (`developer OS network’).

Can these developments contribute to furthering a vibrant commons? OS marketplaces obviously do not. OS networks may contribute, I argue, but most of the time these have close ties to corporate interests, which prevents contributing to the public cause. Licensing may be asymmetrical (more rights granted to the company than to the public at large), access – and licensing accordingly – may be restricted, and so on. Only rarely companies conclude that their best interests are served by turning a network of theirs into an independent venture. Then, of course, the public cause is served.

Thereupon we turn our attention to products other than software. This is the area of `wikinomics’, of `crowdsourcing’, of `open innovation’. Evidence indicates that the same institutional developments of OS marketplaces, corporate networks and developer networks are unfolding. I argue that – also here – mostly corporate interests are being served. Notice that these developments only apply to informational products, while for physical products hardly any proper `peer production’ is conceivable (cf. above).

Some concrete examples are analyzed in support of this proposition. InnoCentive is a virtual marketplace (`ideagora’), on which companies post their unresolved R&D problems in search for `solvers’ who get paid for their solutions. Obviously, there is no relation with the public cause. Burda Mode invites seamstresses from all over the world to put their patterns on Lego, similarly, has a scheme called Lego Factory, allowing users to upload their designs for general use. With Lego Mindstorms hobbyists can download enabling source code (with a GPL), and upload robotic software that they produce with it in return. In all these networks the licensing scheme is asymmetrical, reserving rights of modification and of commerce exclusively to the companies themselves. Notice that for the Lego designs to have any use at all, hobbyists need to buy the corresponding Lego hardware first.