More than a licence, we need to commit to a sustainable digital infrastructure.

A (very) brief history of open software movements

Both free software and opensource have had tremendous success.

The copyleft principle, e.g. GPL (Source : David Ing)
The permissive principle, e.g. apache 2.0 (Source : David Ing)
% split between licence types (Source: WhiteSource)
Andreessen Horowitz’s view on opensource

Open software is at a crossroads

For many reasons, the opensource model, despite its successes, is now under enormous pressure, especially due to the asymmetry between cloud players and small projects.

Critical projects require more investment

This starts as a classical free rider issue: GAFAs in particular have been criticized for they take and don’t give back. At least not enough. One large complaint has been around the critical projects such as openssl, often maintained with very limited resources. The core infrastructure initiative was created after the famous heartbleed bug illustrated the lack of resources.

The (partial) shift to non-OSI licences

A more recent fight has been going on between AWS (and to a lesser degree, other cloud players) and some well-known projects, such as redis and mongo. This has led to new licences, such as the BSL (Business Source Licence) introduced by MariaDB, which aren’t recognized as opensource by the OSI. The said goal of project re-licencing is to protect and expand the revenues, as they claim they don’t get their fair share from cloud platforms. In short, they feel (rightly so) that they get the recognition, but not the money.

Making money out of opensource is fundamentally difficult

At the core of the problem, is that a successful open source project in no way guarantees a successful business model. It also means that very good projects may fail, despite their technological soundness. We owe to the projects that described their journey, such as Rudder, or made a post-mortem analysis, such as RethinkDB. As with any other business, one needs to demonstrate its added-value.

A proposal for PO licence

Too much falls on individual maintainers

Recent trends include the use of opensource in decentralized projects, as a medium for protocol implementations. This aligns quite well with the cultural background of blockchain ecosystems, but relies in practice on a small number of contributors. Especially the Ethereum project is well-known for organizing decisions around a small number of core developers.

The tragedy of commons is under-optimal

We actually fall into a situation well-known to economists (Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom in particular), under the label, tragedy of the commons:

Makers and Takers, according to Dries Buytaert

What comes after opensource?

Behaviour is more important than copyright

And so, Steve Kabnik poses an interesting question : what comes after opensource? He posits that programmers are very much interested in the production process of software. Said differently, open sourcing is about behaviour, even more than it is about copyright. That could maybe, he argues, open the path to “Open Development Certified” programs, or even “Developer Unions”. I don’t anything of the sort just yet, but it highlight the fact that there is a need for ecosystems that foster real collaboration.

The need for a sustained digital infrastructure

Institutional support is probably critical to set incentives right. In short we need to treat opensource as a digital infrastructure. Nadia Eghbal wrote an interesting report in 2016, “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure”, that highlights the challenges that remain true as we speak. The current pandemic crisis further demonstrates that our societies are highly dependent on internet networks and applications, both for leisure (e.g. streaming, gaming) and work (e.g. videoconferencing, telemedicine). It is the first time that we really see, at planet scale, how critical it has become to our resilience.

The 4 classes of opensource projects

The openness extends to the rest of the supplychain

The current crisis also calls for a redesign of supplychains in general, not limited to software. There’s room for open publication (especially for scientific articles), open standards, open protocols (e.g. blockchain), open data, open hardware (e.g. RISC-V), open design, and so on. That makes both the issue both more important (as it spreads to full product life cycles) and more pressing. Otherwise, the same causes will lead to the same effects.

What about large companies?

Despite being well-funded, they can’t do everything. Their shareholders actually demand a high return on investment, so it’s in their best interest to find a collaborative ground with smaller, more specialized projects, so that they don’t have to do everything by themselves.

An O-Corp movement for digital commons?

In short, I believe we need a new IP and cooperation regime. The blunt fact is that financing and re-financing is the crux of the matter. A solution will likely require:

  1. coupled with private funding to develop products and the related business model linked to those core assets. Those companies, startups or incumbants, would be bound to partly refinance the open assets. The trust in the system could therefore be objectified with a sort of digital “credit score” (based on how much you refinance the digital infrastructure, in %).

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