So I just finished reading Eric Raymond's short collection of influential essays on Open Source software, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar
I have long been a fan of the idea of Open Source from an ethical standpoint, and I've released a number of Open Source software packages in the past.
Although I've skimmed through Raymond's famous essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" in the past, I'm not sure I read the whole thing until now, and I certainly hadn't read his other releated essays collected in this book ("Homesteading and the Noosphere" and "The Magic Cauldron").
I expected to come out of reading those with a new found appreciation for why I should be Open Sourcing all of my software, and was pretty depressed and shocked to instead come out of those essays pretty depressed about the likely future of Open Source and where we are heading from the perspective of a small coder.
I know this is going to be somewhat controversial so let me elaborate. First it may help to put some of this in a philosophical/political context. I am not a fan of capitalism and the culture of "greed is good" -- i think the incentives we've set up for our economic systems favor giant winner-take-all corporations.
Raymond's essays paint a picture of why it's financially beneficial for companies to embrace open source, and an explanation from a largely financial standpoint of why individual hackers benefit from and enjoy open source (to simplify, it builds their reputation which pays off in the future). Raymond does not argue that that's the only reason people get involved in the open source community, but that's the main thrust of the work.
And Raymond makes, to my ears at least, a very compelling and thorough case for why Open Source is the smarter and more profitable road for corporations to take when working on software that they use in house. But there's the rub. The entire set of essays is predicated on the foundation that actually making a living from selling software is out of this equation.
Raymond explains that 95% of software is developed for internal use, not for sale. It is *THIS* internal use software that benefits so greatly and thrives from Open Sourcing. The other 5%, the software created by individuals or small companies for sale to others, is left off the table and basically acknowledged to be harmed by Open Sourcing.
In other words -- the ultimate end of the march to Open Source is a world where individual authors can no longer expect to have money come in from people who purchase software. Instead, our software "economy" is heading towards a future where all software is free (and open source), and everyone is LEVERAGING that software in order to make money on people indirectly (ads, locking into service contracts, selling marking data, etc.).
I think we can see analogies of this in the world of music, movies, and books. If the equivalent philosophy was carried over into these digital mediums, we would find ourselves in a world where the artists (writers, musicians, etc.) no longer can make any money selling music or books to people who listen and read them. All of those things will be free. Instead, the money will flow in but through indirect routes -- large companies charging for services and figuring out ways to make real money off of the free work of the artists.
From an ethical standpoint, I think we need to find a path that embraces the wonderful aspect of Open Source / Free software, but doesn't result in a dystopia for the small artists and developers, making it harder and harder for them to be funded by the people who like and benefit from their work.
I think part of the problem may lie in the Open Source community itself. In an effort to promote and spread the concept of Open Source, the community has embraced the message that corporations can make bigger profits by open sourcing their software. This may be fine as far as it goes, but I do believe that the consequences of this focus by the open source community has left small independent developers by the wayside.
One possible answer is for the grass roots Open Source community to take much more seriously the plight of small developers who are interested in forming a direct relationship with their users, and are interested in figuring out a way to be paid for their work and do it as a living. Some of core untouchable definitions of Open Source (like the ability to fork, and the ability to charge to sell distributions of software someone else wrote) make this very difficult.
From my standpoint, the ideal solution would be one where as a community were much more willing to donate to support software we used. I just don't know if that is realistic.
I don't think anyone believes that the ideal world is one where everything is Open Source, but the only people who can afford to spend time coding are those those doing it as a hobby because they have another paying job, or those who are working for large companies that are figuring out ways to leverage free software to make money indirectly from it, and where we kill off the entire small-developer software community that is trying to make a living directly interacting with their users.
Anyway, those are just some thoughts going through my head. Please don't take this as an attack on the concept of Open Source, or think that I am hostile towards it. I think the Open Source movement is a wonderful one. I'm just trying hard to figure out in my own mind, and draw a little attention to, what seems to me like a serious unfortunate consequence of our *current* thinking about Open Source, and hope that the community can find a way to address this issue and find some kind of solution.
Despite my worries that we are going down this very unfortunate path, I think the opportunity still exists to take a different route that leads us to both an Open Source future, and a future where artists and authors are able to directly connect to their users and fans and be directly funded by them, cutting out the currently dominant role of middle men. I'm just not sure how to advance us down that path.