European Union Researches the Benefits of Open Source Software
Pages: 1, 2

Moral Concerns

A sense of moral imperative concerning information freedom motivates a lot of free software developers. Nearly all of the programmers surveyed understood the philosophical difference between "free software" and "open source," as articulated by Richard M. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, chief writer of the FLOSS study, finds in the developer results several thought-provoking observations:

  • Although organizations trying to commercialize free software (such as my own company, O'Reilly & Associates) promote the term "open source," more of the developers identify with the "free software" side than the "open source" side (48 percent versus 38 percent).

  • Most "free software" developers were content to coexist with the "open source" label, but 38 percent of them -- 18 percent of all developers in the survey -- took a stronger position and refused to identify with the "open source" community. Furthermore, 38 percent of all developers agreed with the statement that software should not be proprietary.

  • Participation in free software projects tends to sharpen developers' philosophical and political concerns. Belief that "software should not be a proprietary good" and a desire to "limit the power of large software companies" were larger motivations for developers continuing to work on projects than they had been in attracting these developers in the first place.

It would be interesting to imagine what would happen to the open source movement if proprietary software projects dried up. The demographic part of the FLOSS survey showed that the majority of contributors to free software are professional programmers. Most of them work on open source projects as a hobby, often for just a couple of hours a week. In short, proprietary software provides an income for fully half of the people who work on open source software. But perhaps many of these programmers work on in-house software rather than on commercially-sold software (a point made by Eric Raymond in his essay "The Magic Cauldron," published in The Cathedral & the Bazaar).

Related Reading

The Cathedral & the Bazaar
Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary
By Eric S. Raymond

The researchers conducting the FLOSS study could not detect much of a concern for moral issues in the organizations using free software (whether commercial or nonprofit). But my interpretation of the statistics shows more of a groundswell of concern among customers than the researchers allowed for.

The percentage of organizations that agreed with the statement "We prefer using open source software -- that's part of our company policy" was low (19 percent), but still pretty impressive, when you consider how rarely businesses take stands on questions outside of purely-practical considerations. Similarly, I consider it an achievement when 35 percent agree with the statement "By using open source software we want to support the open source community."

On the other hand, I do not feel a sense of confidence that companies take a moral position by allowing their developers to contribute to open source projects during work hours. While 36 percent say they allow it, they could be doing so simply for pragmatic reasons.

The FLOSS researchers correlated organizations' responses with many demographic characteristics, but did not correlate the responses to particular statements with responses to other statements. In any survey, it is hard to draw conclusions about beliefs and motives. So both the researchers and the readers of the FLOSS survey are left guessing about the meaning behind many responses, just as we are left guessing why free software programmers (a whopping 48 percent) prefer the Debian GNU/Linux distribution far more than any other operating system.

What about the availability of source code? Open source's defining characteristic, it's been touted as an unbeatable competitive advantage. Here the researchers find very little interest among users. But once again, I think they underestimate the importance of the interest they do find. Some 12 percent of organizations rate the openness of source code "very important" (the percentage rises to 19 percent for desktop software and Web sites) and an even greater percentage rates it lower but still "important." I think that 12 to 19 percent of a user base is quite enough to create a supportive community, and is competitively significant, as well.

It's no surprise that more companies are interested in modifying their desktop software (which is currently not too stable) and Web site software than their operating system or database, just as a typical home owner is more comfortable rehanging a window than ripping out the plumbing.

Demographics and Personal Motives

The FLOSS study spends a good deal of time looking at what kind of person writes free software, and why he (because 99 percent of these developers are male) chooses to do so. The results tend to validate another recent study made by the Boston Consulting Group, wherever the two studies overlap.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the majority of contributors are professional programmers. Many can boast an academic computer science background. They tend to be young, but (contrary to popular belief in some quarters) students do not predominate. A good number of developers are in their thirties. These are heavily represented among project leaders. But most projects have only one or two contributors.

How about motivations? Non-monetary rewards, such as respect in the community, are important. Both the Boston Consulting Group and the FLOSS surveys also found that one of the most popular reasons for joining a project was to learn new skills.

And indeed, the investment of time pays off. A slight majority -- if one includes indirect employment, such as support -- earn some money from free software. Perhaps it is not so remarkable that a majority of contributors are convinced they take out of the projects more than they give.

Lofty Goals

The FLOSS report is long but quite readable, and I recommend exploring the subtleties of its reasoning for yourself. While the results will interest anybody who thinks about the prospects for the growth and spread of free software, the FLOSS project is ultimately about much more. Among the goals stated in the survey's overview are:

  • "A better realization of political aims [presumably those of the EU] in the context of open source software" (p. 8)

  • "Identifying the impact of and recommending changes in government policy and regulatory environments with regards to OS/FS" (p. 3)

  • Drawing "broader" conclusions about "non-monetary and trans-monetary activity in the information society, beyond the domain of OS/FS" (p. 3)

The researchers are even mining the source code on a huge number of open source projects to trace the connections between the projects and their authors. Although these efforts are tentative, someday they may help to firm up our understanding of the unique opportunities for education, code reuse, and synergistic evolution presented when programmers publish source code to the whole world.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is

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