Conflicts in open source business models |

Conflicts in open source business models

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I can't imagine a world in which compromise and collaboration could be more important than in an open source business model. The model itself opens a Pandora's Box of issues that create a minefield that must be navigated on a daily basis and makes those concepts critical to success. Think, for an instance, about a world in which one or many of the possible points of differentiation are freely shared—and some even given away—without condition to parties whose interests are naturally misaligned with yours. The hope is through sharing that the collective community or society will be better served.

Delisa Alexander, SVP of People and Brand at Red Hat, offered an interesting read on sharing the open source way. That fundamental belief is breached when certain parts of that society or community don't have any accountability into the community. Open society and communities take active participants and volunteers to make work and survive over a long period of time. What I'm articulating is not a new or unknown problem, but one that has been studied in many forms throughout academic history—the moral hazard problem of the “Free Rider.”

Open source at its roots is really about “freedom,” not about “free,” and that is a critical concept to understand for the longevity of open source business models. Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is famously quoted as saying “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.” We all believe that sharing is good, but exploitation of the system is bad—very bad. Some might even say evil. And those participants who exploit that freedom should be held accountable to the society as a whole for those actions.

To quote Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO, “Freedom without accountability is chaos.” But who or what entity should govern that accountability? It is a very open question and one I hope the readers of this post will consider. In the true open source way, I believe it is in the realm of the community to self-govern, but communities are fluid and ever-changing entities, and at some level stability is needed for the community to grow. From the open source perspective, the communities that have developed around the concept adhere to a set of principles that help govern the participants, but really few participants are actually held accountable for their participation. When is that last time you heard of an open source community actually censuring one of its own for poor behavior? But even with the community self-governing, it needs the support of a broader ecosystem for true sustainability.

That broader support that any progressive society or community needs is an environment that acts as an enabler of the advancement so that goals and aspirations can be achieved. This is structured within the legal fabric in which those communities operate. Strides have been made in recent years as a better understanding of the open source way has been woven into our collective knowledge base, but there is still a long way to go. An example of strides forward in this area is the Open Government initiatives under the Obama administration, but there are still a number of legacy issues that certain institutions have been unable to address. The recent Bilski decision by the US Supreme Court is evidence that we're moving in that direction (see Rob Tiller's post on the subject), but we still have a ways to go to address software patents that stifle innovation.

Another example in which legacy legal interpretations are in conflict with the true nature of open source are export control laws. It makes it fundamentally difficult to share when I can't share with everyone. I don't think I'm arguing for or against sharing without constraint or recourse, but just that the environment that open source business models operate in is very gray and a constantly evolving legal structure adds complexity.

A third issue that arises in any truly collaborative environment is the issue of group think. Meritocracy is at the heart of any open source community. But human dynamics come into play in any human interaction. That is to suggest that sometimes, the loudest rather than the best ideas take root. Enter the world of crowdsourcing. It is one of another hot topics that is sometime confused or bundled with open source. (See Chris Gram's post on crowdsourcing and the open source way.) It contemplates true collaboration, but that does not always mean enlightenment. It is the tragedy of the commons that is well-documented and repeated throughout history that actually began the downfall of many a great society. I only hope that communities and the open source movement are truly open to the concept that we default to collaboration for decision-making but are not beholden to it for every relevant decision we must make.

My suggestions to solve these three challenges are rather simplistic. Disavow those community members who do not take their responsibility seriously. Continue to educate the lawmakers of the world about the changes and challenges that the current environment presents to true innovation and collaboration. And finally, be wary of simply following the crowd, because true leadership isn't about only doing what is popular. It is about way more than that. But those are mine, and quite frankly I'm more interested in listening to yours, so please let me know what you think. To be continued...

About the author

Joe Anglim - I'm a relative new comer to the open source movement. I joined Red Hat as a strategic consultant in the spring of 2008 and became a full time associate the following April. I support a number of the strategic initiative within the organization as a Special Project Consultant. One of the many great benefits of my job is that it is always changing as new innovative ideas and projects grow from the directions set by our senior leaders.