How do we expand Open Source?

So, one thing which keeps comming up in a bunch of different areas of my life is how we can expand the ethic of Open Source development.

People want TurboGears to do more than it does, they want other open source projects to grow, they want new open source projects in specific areas, and they want Open Source like activity in other professions like nursing or construction.

I definitely don’t have the answers. But I’ve had this conversation with a lot of folks over the last couple of months, and some of them had some great ideas.

So, in the spirit of opening up a larger conversation about these issues, here are a couple of thoughts distilled from all those conversations.

Institutionalizing Open Source Values

It is of course possible to create cultural institutions around which money can be channeled into Open Source development.

And all the legal mechanisms needed to structure those institutions in the right way are available today.

But the trick it seems is to create the institutions in such a way that money is delivered in small enough amounts that individuals remain in control. Money is powerfully persuasive, but one of the keys to the current success of open source is that collective action is always purely voluntary.

But at the same time the money needs to come in large enough amounts to make a difference. People need to be able to support lives and families on the work they do advancing various projects. To the extent that this is reliable income, we can remove competing priorities, and developers will be able to devote themselves more fully to projects that advance the common good.

So, the key to making all of this work is going to be the “bureaucracies” we create to manage the flow of money. They need to be tuned properly to the nature of the work, stable enough to provide a level of personal security, and perhaps above all they need to be financially transparent.

Creating the right kinds of organizational structures will help us channel the right amounts of money to the right people, and creating the wrong kinds will create perverse incentives that pollute the whole system.

Most of what’s been happening so far in this direction are ecosystems of companies built around open source offerings. This has worked pretty well, but it’s clear that there can be conflicts of interest, and the nature of commercial ownership leaves even the best run companies vulnerable to sudden changes (acquisition of small open source companies by huge proprietary competitors is already a fact of life).

But, what seems more interesting to me at this point is the number of foundations that are being are created for popular projects or groups of popular projects, etc.

These institutions will continue to grow, but they have the potential to change the way projects are run, so I expect a lot of fits and starts as we mature.

Open Source for other Professions

With that thought in mind perhaps lawyers, doctors, and other professions already have a form of the Open Source ethic, which has grown up around large institutions, and functions to spread knowledge and advance the state of the art of those groups. These institutions work to create new knowledge, train practitioners, and they seem to work pretty well.

If you haven’t caught on already I think it might be fair to say that this sub-section of these professions is called “academics.” ;)

Of course the university system isn’t perfect, and it’s taken hundreds of years to evolve to it’s current state, but I think it does provide some insight into how we might evolve larger institutional presences around open source, not in the next few years, but in the next few decades.