Open source software (OSS) refers to software that can be freely used and modified. It is developed collaboratively over the Internet by teams of globally distributed and predominantly volunteer programmers . The OSS movement is a continuation of a long tradition of sharing and cooperation that started in the early days of the Internet. OSS is protected under copyright licenses that aim to ensure the availability and free (re)distribution of the source code, the set of instructions written by developers that make up a program.
The term “open source” is frequently used alternatively or in conjunction with the term “free software” (as in FLOSS – Free Libre Open Source Software). FLOSS is an evolving and ambiguous phenomenon. It encompasses a wide variety of projects and institutional frameworks, such as community-initiated and -led projects, initiatives introduced and controlled by corporations, restrictive copyleft licenses, as well as more permissive, noncopyleft licenses, depending on how strict the conditions for the use and redistribution of the source code are. Copyleft licenses ensure that all the freedoms in modifying, using, and distributing the source code, which are protected under their terms, are preserved in any of its subsequent versions, whereas noncopyleft licenses allow for various exceptions.
OSS has been regarded as emblematic of processes associated with the transformative socio-economic capabilities of the Internet and of information and communication technologies. In particular, FLOSS has been examined as a revolutionary software development methodology, the principal characteristics of which are the granularity and modularity of the source code, which allow individuals to become as involved as they wish depending on their time and level of expertise, and the intensive release schedule, which leverages user feedback to implement new features and to quickly detect and solve program errors (bugs) (Feller & Fitzgerald 2002). In addition, FLOSS has been regarded as representative of a new model of production, social or peer-to-peer production, which reduces the gap between consumers and producers of information and which provides an alternative to the rationality of the exchange economy. It is known as the “gift economy,” which expresses the essence of community and is based on the principle of anticipated reciprocity (Kollock 1999; Benkler 2006). At the same time, FLOSS has been viewed as an engine of economic development that provides the means to correct the deficiencies of proprietary software, especially in cases where access and interoperability are of great importance, such as in the case of e-government services (Forge 2005).
Most examinations of the OSS phenomenon rely on a combination of arguments, including the cultural, ideological perspective focusing on influential practitioners’ accounts (Raymond 2001) and emphasis on the role of ideology and the desire to participate in the gift economy; the socio-technical perspective, which views OSS projects as systems whose technical and social aspects are intricately connected through a dual, recursive process of technology and social shaping; and organizational studies, labor economics, and the economics of innovation, where a few studies adopt formal economic models, but many researchers frame their explanations by combining insights from a number of areas.
Issues concerning motivation, coordination and cooperation, scalability, conflict management, division of labor, governance, and integration are investigated in the literature, but the topic that has drawn most attention is the question of incentives. One line of research assumes the economic rationality of individual motives and is premised on the view of open source communities as composed by atomized actors whose behavior is influenced by the aggregate behavior of others. This work tends to reduce the complexity of the relationship between the gift and exchange economies to a distinction between monetary and nonmonetary rewards (e.g., Lerner & Tirole 2002). They argue that the reputational benefits of successful OSS contributors often translate into better-paid positions and improved access to venture capital. OSS researchers tend to use quantitative methods, including large-scale developer surveys (David et al. 2003), data mining of concurrent version system (CVS) repositories (Koch & Schneider 2002) and social network analysis of email postings (Crowston & Howison 2005).
Empirical research has demonstrated that claims about the wide collective basis of OSS contributions need to be challenged and that research is needed to understand the viability and scalability of OSS from an internal OSS community perspective on issues of coordination and control, and with regard to the way OSS communities interface with commercial and public actors.
- Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Crowston, K. & Howison, J. (2005). The social structure of open source software development. First Monday, 10(2).
- David, P., Waterman, A., & Arora, S. (2003). FLOSS-US: The free/libre/open source developer software survey for 2003: A first report. At www.stanford.edu/group/floss-us/report/FLOSS-USReport.pdf, accessed May 5, 2004.
- Feller, J., & Fitzgerald, B. (2002). Understanding open source software development. London: Addison
- Forge, S. (2005). Towards an EU policy for open source software. In M. Wynants & J. Cornelis (eds.), How open is the future? Economic, social and cultural scenarios inspired by free and open source software. Brussels: VUB, pp. 489 –503.
- Koch, S. & Schneider, G. (2002). Effort, co-ordination and co-operation in an open source software project: GNOME. Information Systems Journal, 12(1), 27– 42.
- Kollock, P. (1999). The economies of online cooperation: Gifts and public goods in cyberspace. In M. Smith & P. Kollock (eds.), Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 220 –242.
- Lerner, J., & Tirole, J. (2002). Some simple economics of open source. Journal of Industrial Economics, 50(2), 197–234.
- Raymond, E. S. (2001). The magic cauldron. In The cathedral and the bazaar: Musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, pp. 113 –166.