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Why Open Source is Unsustainable

November 3rd, 2004 · 3 Comments

Financial Times has an essay (which I don’t agree with) by Richard Epstein:

The difficulties with the open source movement , moreover, go deeper than the problems with a single provision of the GPL. The open source movement shares many features with a workers commune, and is likely to fail for the same reason: it cannot scale up to meet its own successes. To see the long-term difficulty, imagine a commune entirely owned by its original workers who share pro rata in its increases in value. The system might work well in the early days when the workforce remains fixed. But what happens when a given worker wants to quit? Does that worker receive in cash or kind his share of the gain in value during the period of his employment? If not, then the run-up in value during his period of employment will be gobbled up by his successor – a recipe for immense resentment. Yet that danger can be ducked only by creating a capital structure that gives present employees separable interests in either debt or equity in exchange for their contributions to the company. But once that is done, then the worker commune is converted into a traditional company whose shareholders and creditors contain a large fraction of its present and former employers.

The bottom line is that idealistic communes cannot last for the long haul. The open source movement may avoid these difficulties for outside contributors who work for credit and glory. But how do the insiders, such as Linus Torvalds, cash out of the business that they built? And in the interim, how do they attract capital and personnel needed to expand the business? Traditional companies have evolved their capital structures for good reason.

But suppose this analysis is wrong. One clear policy implication remains: this novel form of business association should succeed or fail on its own merits. The do-or-die question is whether open source offers a low cost solution to particular problems. Ordinary companies will make just those calculations, but government agencies may be swayed to take a different tack, as has been suggested by a number of EU studies. That temptation should be avoided. Governments are bad at forcing technology by playing favourites. If open source is less effective than proprietary software, that gap should not be ignored by positing some positive network externalities that come from giving it a larger base. Proprietary systems also show positive network effects from increased users, as software designers are always attracted by a larger installed base. Its a tough world out there, in which no one should be exempted from the general competitive pressures of the marketplace. The fiduciary duties of government to all citizens demand no less.

Tags: Software

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