A dog is captured in mid-leap in a field of golden straw, all four feet are off the ground and full extended as if the dog is in flight less than a foot off the ground.

Frictionless marketplace of ideas and activities

The frictionless marketplace

Our viewpoint here is straightforward: lowering and removing barriers to participation in Open Source is good for more than individuals. It creates a frictionless marketplace of ideas and activities for institutions and organizations to functionally participate in, after receiving or confirming permission to engage.

The rise of a frictionless marketplace

Decorative image of a smooth groove in a deck of wood, with an out of focus lake in the background.

Look across the vast range of institutes and organizations using, participating in, and collaborating around Open Source and you may be impressed at the breadth and depth of activities. In awe, you might dive down a rabbit hole of a popular collaboration to learn more. What can you learn from studying the cloud native ecosystem around Kubernetes? What can’t you learn?!

But pause before the dive and consider the entirety of what you see with your own eyes: public and private organizations from different industries and fields, local and regional and national, profit and non-profit, educational and research-oriented, secular and spiritual are all able to collaborate in creating and sharing in the value.

All of those groups — some with strong histories of fierce competition in the marketplace and even the actual battlefield — come together regularly in Open Collaboration projects. People gather in physical and virtual spaces, and immediately are sharing ideas and generating activities, with the resulting innovations ending up as durable artifacts in the commons.

These durable artifacts are significant pieces of intellectual property (IP) and primarily software to date, used in electronics and computers of every size and function. Most smartphones are running some kind of Open Source as the core operating system (iOS from Apple, Android from Google), all the way up to the vast majority of the public cloud providers running a version of Linux as their core OS or as a primary runtime for workloads. The amount of this shared, common IP is measured in the trillions of US dollars.

This all occurs under the aegis of a range of Open Source licenses, the existence of which provides more than a legal framework and cover. It is the cultural touchstone in an Open Collaboration, the common agreement that means, “We have permission to work and play together without checking any further.”

It is the cultural touchstone in an Open Collaboration, the common agreement that means, “We have permission to work and play together without checking any further.

— cultural meaning of an Open Source license

Importance of a sense of freedom

A dog is captured in mid-leap in a field of golden straw, all four feet are off the ground and full extended as if the dog is in flight less than a foot off the ground.

For an individual collaborator, the experience is nearly universal: once you and your organization have vetted and understood the license of the project(s) you are joining, you mentally enter a place that is a sandbox from the perspective of your organization. This so-called sandbox is a place where you can play around without risking or causing damage to your employer or self. The sense is immediately clear — you are outside of your organization’s walls and relatively safe from damaging it.

But quickly you discover this sandbox is not just a play-around-ground, it actually exists as part of the real world. This is for two reasons:

  1. It is populated with multiple people from nearly every organization, government, and nation on Earth. As a space of common agreement, the Open Source ecosystem is global and ubiquitous. You can go from “play” to “serious work” in a literal moment, circumstances depending.
  2. It is centered on enabling the ancient human experience of meeting another person and striking up a conversation, for any reason. The experience of feeling free to do whatever the both of you wish. Thus the conversation could be singular and in passing, or turn into lunch and a lifelong friendship, or result in writing a book or building a bridge (literal or figurative) together.

This is an important distinction: while Open Source licenses deal in a limited set of permissions and restrictions, people feel a level of unlimited freedom to think and do as they wish simply knowing the license exists. And when working entirely with Free and Open Source software, you can take whatever you find and do whatever you want with it, for most intents and purposes.

… people feel a level of unlimited freedom to think and do as they wish simply knowing the [Open Source] license exists.

— The source for the sense of freedom

With great power comes great responsibility

A bike is photographed on a surface that is flooded with less an an inch (or two centimeters) of water. The bike appears to be resting with a kickstand on the surface of a body of water, with the mirrored reflection of the bike in the slightly rippled surface visible.

Why is this level of permission given to Open Source collaborators and how has it become ubiquitous?

First consider another normal situation, a negotiated agreement between two parties — it can be a long process to come to final signatures, and it generally covers a narrow set of activities for a limited period of time. You may need to refer back to the contract regularly to be sure you are within its bounds. As you go about doing things under the aegis of that contract, you will necessarily think in careful and limited ways that are within the bounds of the agreement.

In contrast, an Open Source collaboration is potentially boundless for activities and time scale. It is a place that is perpetually “open for …” whatever you need it to do.

Twenty and even ten years ago, there was reticence by many senior leaders to treat this new frictionless marketplace of ideas and activities as safe-enough to come in contact with their business or institution. Today, the sentiment across industries and organizations of all kinds largely seems to be at least some amount of work (IP generation) can occur in the Open. This is a logical next-step from organizations enjoying the lowered costs and higher quality of existing Open Source components.

As people come to understand the hack of copyright law that is underneath Free and Open Source licensing, they often don’t fully realize all the implications. But just as copyright law and its effects have become ubiquitous, the hack riding on copyright becomes ubiquitous because it ends up occupying (or close enough) the same legal landscape as well-understood copyright doctrine. More importantly, it occupies a similar mental and emotional space as copyright for the people involved in collaborating on Open Source.

An organization eventually comes to understand the value and effect of this reverse copyright and how the ecosystem has responded with a range of permissive licenses to balance the feeling and fact of Open licensing on the owners of the copyrights. There has been a resulting growth of comfort in executive leadership and corporate/senior legal counsel about the limits and values of Open Source licenses. The “sandbox” becomes more and more real.

This comfort comes from how the Open Source ecosystem is largely bounded from the perspective of organizational risk (thanks in part to the no-warranty clauses in every Open Source license), and bounded as well around control and ownership. The organization evolves to perceive and work with the control points of Open Source1. If it can continue to keep the sharing in balance, it will gain from the exponential benefits of co-creation and innovation, and co-maintenance of code and content over multiple years.

Yet for the individuals participating in the Open Source ecosystem, within that bounded space is practically everything one needs to innovate and create, with a common result of the creations making it out of the “sandbox” and into a real world product. Or a helicopter on Mars.

It is the frictionless nature of the Open Source ecosystem that is the start and finish of the value individuals and organizations gain time after time. Due to the frictionless nature, the ecosystem acts as a marketplace (the bazaar), not for goods but for ideas. Ides specifically allowed to be used as building blocks for more ideas, generating innovation after innovation.

If the decades old bazaar analogy is apt here, it is because humans have been gathering at fairs and marketplaces for millennia, to share ideas and goods, and to create new things together. The freer the sharing of ideas and the feeling of building something with the ideas, the greater the innovation engine is for everyone.

  1. Ownership is one friction area, and how ownership relates to control has erupted a number of times over the decades with companies relicensing their software as non-Open Source. One underlying component in all these cases has been the company owning the copyright and controlling the project moves away from a shared product roadmap. The shared roadmap is core to community-driven R&D like Open Source, and results in >90% of code and content coming from the controlling and owning company. ↩︎
Scroll to Top