What to do with Open Source Freeloaders?

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On occasion, people working on open source projects will lament how a lot of organizations are using the output of the open source project but not contributing back.  For instance, at Eclipse, we have millions of users but only tens of thousands of individuals who have opened a bug (a very basic way of contributing back). In frustration, the term “freeloader” is sometimes used to describe these organizations in a not-exactly-positive manner.

Paradoxically, most software producing organizations have a metric of success based on the number of users or widespread adoption.  Freeloaders are actually users, and having lots of users is good for a project.  A large user community is the market for any ecosystem that might build up around a project.   Users buy books and training, go to conferences, evangelize, use add-on products/projects, etc.  Users also directly and indirectly validate the work of the project and the future roadmap.  If more and more people are using your project, then you are probably doing something right.

The freeloader term does point to an important issue for many open source projects: they never have enough resources.  The economics of open source development are more subtle than the traditional transactional nature of commercial software.  For open source projects to add more resources requires individuals or organizations to contribute the time or money, often without a direct transactional benefit.  For the most part, companies are setup to buy or sell things, not “give away” time or money.

Open source is now mainstream in large enterprise IT shops and the entire software industry.   It would be a challenge to find an organization that is not using and benefitting from open source in some form or another.   And while the industry and end-users are now comfortable using open source, more needs to be done to encourage contributions back. Organizations need to understand that, in order for their favorite open source project to fulfill their needs into the future, they need to be more involved in the present.

There are certainly many organizations that understand the economics of open source.  Most leading enterprise software vendors like IBM, Oracle, SAP and Web 2.0 companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, all consume and contribute back to open source.   The challenge for the open source community is educating the end-user organizations, like financial institutions and government organizations, that participating in an open source project is part of a successful long-term open source strategy.  Using open source is great, but giving back will protect your long-term usage.

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2 Responses to “What to do with Open Source Freeloaders?”

  1. Ian, Agree with your assertion that we need to continue educating the end-user organizations, in particular the legal teams. When there is push back from corporate attorneys it creates a barrier that is often hard to overcome. Anything we can do to reduce the friction will help these organizations overcome the roadblocks they face internally.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:47 pm
    • I agree the legal teams need education but I also think there is a mindset change that needs to occur. Open source governance within large organizations tend to be procurement orients and miss that in the long-term they also need to contribute back.

      March 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm