The Inquirer-Home

Getting to the root of open source

Speaker's Corner Rishab Aiyer Ghosh
Wed Jan 31 2007, 12:45
PART OF THE early received wisdom about open-source was that it couldn't last: why would people donate their time and expertise to creating something for no return?

The question interested Rishab Aiyer Ghosh enough to move him from India to Europe in 2000 and from a career as a computer consultant to one in economics. "I found it more interesting to write in English than in C," he explains. He estimates that he's published over half a million words since 1990 in papers, studies, and the peer-reviewed Internet economics journal he founded.

Ghosh was lead author of the recently released study on the impact of open-source software in the EU (PDF). Based on analysing six European organisations, the study concludes that long-term open-source software (which it inclusively calls FLOSS, for Free/Libre Open-Source Software) saves money, despite the "temporary" costs and difficulties of migration. The current codebase would cost companies almost €12 billion to reproduce internally, and it has been doubling every 18 to 24 months over the past eight years, with no slowdown in immediate sight. The 131,000 real person-years of effort the report estimates went into producing this codebase is not included in national productivity numbers. FLOSS, the report adds, can save industry over 36 percent in software research and development investment, a way for Europe to compensate for its lower levels of ICT investment relative to the US.

And yet, although the report identifies Europe as the leading region in terms of global project leaders and globally collaborating FLOSS software developers, European governments have no connection with them.

Ghosh's own thinking about open-source software isn't really like anyone else's. More of his words appeared in the essay "Cooking-pot markets and balanced value flows," which appeared in the book he edited in 2006, CODE: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy. Both the book and the essay were striking because they represented a completely different take on today's intellectual property battles: Western, individualist IP law has huge gaps in it when you come to study collaborative societies in other parts of the globe. And yet, the open-source movement makes a lot more sense when it's viewed alongside societies that collaborate to produce dances and songs to worship spirits or that share cooking pots. These works go a long way toward answering his original question: is it really altruism that makes people contribute to open-source software? Traditional economics would hold that this was impossible, that people behave according to rational self-interest.

"The central point of my research," Ghosh says, "is that such things need not be explained by altruism. Often people make this assumption that altruism as we assume exists in some fictional tribal societies is a question of just giving things away and getting nothing back. But if you look at anthropological studies even in those tribal societies where they engage in gift-giving it's not altruistic in the economic sense because it involves giving someone something in the knowledge and expectation that you will get something back."

In "Cooking pot markets", Ghosh made the point that these transactions need not be one-to-one. "It doesn't really matter whether you get something back specifically for what you've given as long as you think that you're getting something out of the system that's more than what you put in," he says. The 2002 study and subsequent work have showed clearly that this is how open-source developers feel about their contributions. Despite a diversity of motives - fun, learning new skills, earning money (though the income may be indirect) - the responses "clearly show that the benefits people derive outweigh what they feel is the cost of what they contribute. "In fact," he adds, "most of the leading open-source developers are making money for their contributions." Typically, 20 percent of developers write more than 75 percent of the code, though they still need the other's contribution in order to finish projects.

The system is, he concludes sustainable: open-source developers, however it may appear at first glance, are in fact acting on rational self-interest. µ

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and a page linking to in this series. Readers are welcome to send email to (but please turn off HTML).


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