The rocky economics of open source development

This article has a nice headline: “The World’s Email Encryption Software Relies on One Guy, Who is Going Broke.” True believers in the Invisible Hand might take the story as evidence that the open source model can’t work. But I think it illustrates the possibilities (and difficulties) of adhering to this model in a world structured along different lines.

Koch continued to work on GPG in between consulting projects until 1999, when the German government gave him a grant to make GPG compatible with the Microsoft Windows operating system. The money allowed him to hire a programmer to maintain the software while also building the Windows version, which became GPG4Win. This remains the primary free encryption program for Windows machines.

In 2005, Koch won another contract from the German government to support the development of another email encryption method. But in 2010, the funding ran out.

For almost two years, Koch continued to pay his programmer in the hope that he could find more funding. "But nothing came," Koch recalled. So, in August 2012, he had to let the programmer go. By summer 2013, Koch was himself ready to quit.

I’m reminded of a talk I heard by British art-rock musician Robert Fripp, who has pursued a difficult sort of music in ways that have allowed him to make a modest living at it. Yet he continually discourages anyone from trying to go professional unless they are absolutely driven to play music every waking moment, encouraging them instead to pursue music as a “hobby”. In the talk he mentioned that he had trouble making this point with American audiences until he learned that Americans have a different view of “hobby”. In Britain, a hobby can be a pursuit that takes up half one’s life—limited to half, presumably, because the rest has to be spent earning the living that enables the hobby. But it’s the hobby that’s important, the living is just a means to that end.

This kind of productive activity doesn’t make any sense given the current ideal of being paid for what we love to do—even those who aren’t earning a living from their calling are viewed as falling short of the ideal. No other possibilities are considered, e.g. being bi-vocational, or perhaps arranging one’s life so that a living is scraped together without a vocation at all, in order to devote one’s energies to something else. Nothing prevents, say, a Christian teacher from teaching for no compensation while funding his existence through totally unrelated activity. But you rarely see it.

I think the jury is still out on whether the open source model can continue to thrive. The only other place it has been adopted in truth rather than just in appearance is education—not only by explicitly educational projects like Khan Academy and MIT Open CourseWare, but also the endless stream of instructional videos on YouTube and the various expert communities fostered by StackExchange. But there are plenty of hucksters and opportunists operating in this sphere, and who knows if they will manage to co-opt these efforts.

Although twenty years ago I would have enthusiastically championed the open source model as a different and better organizing principle, an older chastened me now just looks at it and ponders. There have been plenty of models proposed in years past for changing human behavior in new and better ways. All of them have turned out to be major disappointments. Meanwhile, here is a far more modest point of view—namely, that it’s a bad idea to treat intellectual content as property—which is not only shocking to the modern mind, but has actually opened up space in the economic sphere for people to behave in different and better ways—and, behold, some of them actually embrace the opportunity.


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