Free R & D?

Spider Tower Block

I have just read an article that was describing the advantage of Free and Open Source software (F/OSS) and asserting that one of the benefits it brings people is "Free R & D". I thought this expression needed some commentary. That word "free" once again blights us, pushing our discussions back into a frame that demands a dollar sign along with every deal.

I can assert from personal experience that the research and the development performed by members of the many project communities that make up the overall F/OSS community is most definitely not free in the sense of being gratis, without cost. It costs every one of us time, many of us money as well. As the cost of the R & D is not bourne by a single entity, it's pointless to try to estimate a dollar value for it unless you also establish the exchange rate. But it's not free/gratis. Each community member invests according to their ability and goals, and they do so because they expect to see a return on that investment on their own terms and timescale.

For some, the return is in the form of social good achieved, for example in enabling communities in the two-thirds world to function on equal terms with the globalisers. For others, the return is achieved in de-positioning commercial competitors who believe "closed" is a commercial advantage. For some, the return is achieved in the sustaining of a market in which their services have commercial value. For some, the return is achieved through the commercialisation of a software product built with code from the community in which they participate. For some, the return is a sense of satisfaction in working with software. All of these and more are in-play, and the dollar value of the investments is not really subject to analysis.


To describe the work of each of these community members as free/gratis is to allow the framing of the conversation by the old world. The truth is that each open source community is built from a diverse mix of participants, each present on their own terms and for their own purposes and each working at cost to themselves in order to achieve the return they seek, without concern over either the costs or goals of other community members. Each member is responsible for covering their own costs and because of that there's a level playing field for all participants, and use without contribution is also OK.

So, if you're discussing the economics of open source, please don't say we're here providing "free R&D". The actual investment is huge, I would guess of the order of trillions of dollars for the aggregate F/OSS communities globally measured in US salaries. But no-one ever sees that cost because the F/OSS community is constructed from individual project communities each of which bears its own cost in exchange for its own return on its own terms. It's a different model and we collectively need commentators to realise that distributed participation is not the behaviour of anti-commercial crazies but rather the effective response of a global software community to globalisation by monopolists.

Please instead say "measured the same way, the investment of the FOSS community of communities undoubtedly exceeds the individual budget of probably any other entity by an order of magnitude or more, but that's not relevant to the way F/OSS works" and go on to re-frame the conversation. It's important to reframe the conversation, because as George Lakoff has demonstrated, it's the frame that defines the outcome of the debate.


There's an interesting sub-text here about economic measures. As any mainstream politician will tell you, economic growth is a good thing. If parents buy child care from professionals and have to work extended hours to pay for it, that's great as GNP is thereby increased. If we pay for health club memberships because we haven't time to walk in the park, that's good for GNP, so it must be good. If we buy fast food because we haven't time to cook real food, that's good for GNP, so it must be good. So, if schools buy commercial software, that's good as it boosts GNP. If they use functionally equivalent open-source software, that's fundamentally bad for the economy. The commercial software millionaires were right after all: open-source is a threat to civilisation as we know it!

Posted by jpmcc on January 11, 2006 at 05:28 AM PST #

Post a Comment:
Comments are closed for this entry.

Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


« June 2016