FLOSS On the Ropes
In 2020 Nadia Eghbal’s new book, Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software1, was released. I was happy to see the scope expand from Roads and Bridges to incorporate Commons Based Peer Production and the governance of common pool resources, the work of Benkler and Ostrom featuring heavily. It also benefits greatly from Nadia’s time at GitHub, with reams of interesting stats about how the platform is being used by open source communities. I heartily recommend this book for anyone with an interest in how contemporary open source infrastructure is created and maintained.
One of the trends Nadia’s work highlights is the decline in prominence of the FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) ethos, which is quite anti-corporate, in favour of a more apolitical adoption of Open Source as a generic best practice. The dominant role corporations have come to play in some domains of OSS are making it clearer who the primary beneficiaries are, economically at least, and this is giving some contributors cause to pause and consider where it’s all headed. Mozilla has been a major player in open source, offering the most viable alternative web browser to the more surveillance-friendly android backed by Google and co., but had to lay off2 250 workers this year due to “coronavirus-era revenue declines”.
The general sense seems to be that the Free Software movement has been dead for a while, with the GNU GPLv3 licensing debate3 and outcome turning out to be a pivotal moment in its decline. In 2007, some advocates of Free Software wanted to prevent the “Tivoization” of FOSS, where hardware manufacturers could use it within products that restricted the freedom of users to further modify that hardware and software after buying it through forms of imposed lock-in. The GPLv3 license in 2015 accounted for just 8.88% of GitHub repositories4, lower than GPLv2 (13%), with GPL now less commonly used than the more permissive MIT license (45%).
It seems that there is growing disillusionment now with the state of the Open Source commons, it has been colonised by corporate interests and many contributors are feeling like their work is exposed to be picked up by companies whose adoption will generate a lot of work and responsibility for the project but probably little revenue.
Intrinsic motivation usually covers the creation of code because coders like to make new things, but maintenance is another story. Now we have come to depend on open source software for much of our communications, but there has been a lack of consideration paid to the web of dependencies underpinning many popular web applications and the people who keep all of those packages and libraries working and secure.
The following sections look at FOSS in the crypto space, where the context and scene is very different.
- Eghbal, N. (2020). Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software. Stripe Press. [return]
- Melendez, S. (2020). Mozilla vows MDN ‘isn’t going anywhere’ as layoffs cause panic among developers. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90539632/mozilla-vows-mdn-isnt-going-anywhere-as-layoffs-cause-panic-among-developers [return]
- Babcock, C. (2007). The Controversy Over GPL 3. InformationWeek. https://www.informationweek.com/the-controversy-over-gpl-3/198001444 [return]
- Balter, B. (2015, March 10). Open source license usage on GitHub.com. The GitHub Blog. https://github.blog/2015-03-09-open-source-license-usage-on-github-com/ [return]