We need to have a conversation about Open Source and equity. Particularly, we need to talk about how “decisions are made by those who show up” should be amended to read “decisions are made by those who can afford to show up” and what that means for our industry.
The origins of the Open Source movement are rooted in equity + distribution of power: Rather than large corporations controlling both the product, the tooling, and who gets to work on either, the user has full autonomy to create, contribute, distribute, and maintain everything.
This is built on an underlying assumption that everyone has equal ability and availability to actually take part in the Open Source community. From this stems the idea of open source software/hardware being built by the people who use it. That’s no longer true in my opinion.
When the Open Source movement began in earnest, it was a fringe movement – a pushing back against large corporations who controlled everything.
When I went to university in the late 1990s, professors and students alike said Open Source software was little more than a blip on the radar favored by academics and fringe communities. “Open source will die a slow and irrelevant death” said my TA during a Unix class.
When this was true, Open Source truly was built and maintained by the people who used it. That was then. 20 years later, things have changed. A lot.
Today, Open Source rules the web, the internet, and most of the connected technology space. Large companies like Tesla make a point of releasing their software as open source because it turns out the Open Source model actually works.
And therein lies the problem: As Open Source wins the battle for license supremacy, corporations are slowly taking over control over Open Source through the very structural models that made Open Source possible in the first place.
Many Open Source communities stand proudly behind the banner of “decisions are made by those who show up.” But like I said, this really means decisions are made by those who can afford to show up. Those who cannot are left to fend for themselves.
Who can afford to show up? To a larger and larger extent, the answer is big corporations. Looking around various Open Source communities you’ll see core designers and developers being snapped up by corporations to do “Open Source Contribution” full time.
That sounds good on the surface, but what it actually means is those corporations are consolidating power under their corporate umbrella. And no matter how much they say their workers are not swayed by corporate interests, the reality is they are, to a significant degree.
You can see this plainly in an open source project like Android which is now completely dominated by Google and Samsung. Sure, you can contribute all you want, but if you try to steer the project in a direction which doesn’t benefit one of them, you’ll likely get nowhere.
To put it bluntly, successful open source projects are ripe for corporate takeover. And in most cases this means the equitable ideal of Open Source goes out the window.
Who can afford to make significant contributions to open source projects? By and large employees at large corporations. Who can afford to speak at Open Source conferences? The same people. Who sponsors Open Source projects and conferences? The same corporations.
To put an edge on it, big corporations are buying out all the space of both the cathedral and the bazaar.
The inherent problem, as I see it, is our failure to put real actionable value to open source contribution: You can’t buy food or clothes or a roof to cover you from the elements through GitHub contributions. You need someone to pay you for those contributions.
The privilege of working for a company which pays us for open source contribution changes our status as contributors in a significant way because we no longer have to weigh contribution against paying for childcare or food or a visit to the dentist.
If we want Open Source to stay open and equitable, and not become the domain of corporations, we must face up to the reality of contribution and the value it creates.
For Open Source to stay open and equitable, we must find a way to reward contribution with real value. What exactly that looks like I’m not sure, but I hear there’s a thing called “money” which can be used in exchange for good and services.
For the past 20 years the Open Source community has faithfully invested its blood, sweat, tears, time, resources, family, and friends to build something amazing. Now, large corporations are reaping the benefits, refining the work and exchanging it for money.
The only way forward is to build an Open Source economy which promotes equity and shifts our mantra from “decisions are made by those who can afford to show up” to “decisions are made by those who are most impacted”.
I want Open Source to be a place where my 2 year old son can work when he’s old enough. I want it to be open and equitable, and I want it to be rewarding beyond props and GitHub status boards.
I want Open Source to be the community from which our future leaders emerge, from which our future societies are built. For that to happen we need to find a way to reward contribution outside the corporate coffers.
What do you want?
Update: After publishing this article, two relevant writings – one old and one new – have been brought to my attention. I’m appending them here for reference:
The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community
Ashe Dryden, November 13, 2013
The Internet Was Built on the Free Labor of Open Source Developers. Is That Sustainable?
Daniel Oberhaus for Motherboard, February 14, 2019