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Re: <nettime> Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies
Michael Truscello on Fri, 17 Mar 2006 21:48:29 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies

I agree with Felix: Steven Weber's book is a superb analysis of the Open 
Source phenomenon. Felix's review is also an excellent introduction to 
Weber's ideas. If I may, I'd like to offer a review of The Success of Open 
Source that explores some of what I see as its limitations, in addition to 
its exemplary qualities. All apologies, if the formatting of this email does 
not translate properly.

Michael Truscello, Ph.D.

How do you define "success"?

Review of:

Weber, Steven. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard 
University Press, 2004.

UC Berkeley political scientist Steven Weber's The Success of Open Source is 
the first book-length study of FOSS from the social sciences, and in it 
Weber sets out to contextualize or discard some of the more "lavish claims" 
(7) made in the name of free software. Weber seems less interested in the 
critical-theoretical possibilities of FOSS than he is in the contemporary 
practice and adoption of it; that is, the "success" of his title refers more 
to the proliferation of Open Source Software code than to an inherently or 
potentially progressive politics. This attempt to describe the political 
economy of Open Source Software-"an experiment in social organization for 
production around a distinctive notion of property," as he puts it (16)-has 
produced an incisive analysis of the microfoundational and 
macro-organizational governance mechanisms that situate the current 
deployment of Open Source Software, largely within a North American context. 
Weber's book is a crucial departure from the utopianism of earlier studies 
of FOSS and a bridge to future investigations of software production and use 
that must consider some of the issues raised here, issues such as 
"fundamental notions of what constitutes property" and "the most basic 
problems of governance" (vii), where governance refers to "setting 
parameters for voluntary relationships among autonomous parties" (172). 
Ultimately, what sets Open Source apart as a property regime is its 
inversion of conventional notions of property: "Property in open source is 
configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to 
exclude" (1). Open Source Software makes this possible in part because it is 
nonrival-software is infinitely replicable-and it is non-excludable-everyone 
has access to the source code. But Weber interrogates even these seemingly 
obvious platitudes, and illustrates with meticulous research the answers the 
to "elementary political economy question" at the heart of Open Source: "Why 
would any person choose to contribute-voluntarily-to a public good that she 
can partake of, unchecked, as a free rider on the effort of others?" (9).

While there is no question The Success of Open Source is a significant book 
for scholars in a variety of fields, including the emerging field of 
Software Studies, the book's flaws are both cause for critique and a 
potential source of interesting scholarship. In particular, Weber's refusal 
to see Open Source Software as a process and product with as much of an 
ideological component to it as Free Software-choosing instead the party line 
of Open Source advocates, which figures Free Software as a "moral" decision 
and Open Source as simply a "pragmatic" one-compromises his ability to 
circumscribe the full socio-political implications of the adoption of one or 
the other. Weber repeatedly invokes the idea that "pragmatism rules" (116) 
in the Open Source community, as if choosing the more-business-friendly Open 
Source Definition (OSD) is not an ethical decision, not a statement about 
the way elements of society ought to be configured under a particular 
property regime. He also on occasion misrepresents Free Software as 
anticommercial, even though-and he is most certainly aware of this-the first 
principle of Free Software is that it is "free as in liberty, not as in 
price." His acute understanding of Open Source makes these 
misrepresentations all the more puzzling. Weber's tendency to parrot the 
beliefs of Open Source advocates when discussing Free Software, even as he 
dispels their more utopian claims, should not, however, overshadow the 
tremendous accomplishment of The Success of Open Source, which interrogates 
astutely the most fundamental assumptions and practices of Open Source 
software development-such as the notion that it represents an idealized gift 
economy, or the coordinational exigencies that prevent frequent code 
forking-and situates them within the larger ecology of the contemporary 
property rights regime.

As most cultural theorists are by now aware, Open Source Software is, in its 
most generic definition, a process by which hackers work in parallel on the 
uncompiled source code of an application or operating system. The provisions 
of various software licenses allow for the modification and redistribution 
of source code, often without the proprietary restrictions that disable code 
transparency. As Weber's concise and comprehensive history of Open Source in 
chapter 2 demonstrates, the phenomenon (only recently given the name "Open 
Source") is a mélange of legal, sociological, and rhetorical elements that 
ostensibly originates in the computing environments of American university 
and private research laboratories of the 1960s and 1970s. The availability 
of the Unix operating system source code made it a favorite for computer 
science departments in the 1970s, which meant that a whole generation of 
computer scientists were being taught about operating systems using Unix as 
the exemplar. Making the source code available to other researchers was also 
a stipulation of many research grants from the National Science Foundation 
(NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), agencies 
which would make these non-proprietary practices essential in the 
foundational stages of the Internet (Wayner 33). The practice of Open Source 
software development has now spawned a plethora of nominally related 
enterprises-open access, open content, open law, and so on-which may simply 
be new names for old ideas about sharing and property, or they may be 
something more.

Much has been written about the specific quality of the political economy in 
which source code is freely available and subject to modification and 
redistribution. Open Source Software advocate Eric Raymond famously provided 
an ethnographic account of the open software process in his popular essay, 
"The Cathedral and the Bazaar." For Raymond, Open Source Software was a 
bazaar-like enterprise in which the possibility of massive parallel 
debugging contributed to an organic, self-organizing developmental process, 
to be contrasted with the cathedral-building of Richard Stallman's Free 
Software Foundation, which, in Raymond's eyes, was governed by a dictatorial 
leader instead of being governed by the bottom-up principles of his 
technolibertarian leanings. The essentialism of Raymond's libertarian vision 
of Open Source Software, and the reductive binarism of his controlling 
metaphors, distorts what is otherwise a rare and insightful insider's look 
at the sociology of hacker culture. The success of Raymond's essay spawned 
several attempts by academics and programmers to characterize the 
sociological quality of a hacker community that shares information. The Open 
Source community itself compares the sharing of open source code with the 
internal mechanisms of science, such as peer review. "Science is ultimately 
an Open Source enterprise," write Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone 
in the introduction to the first comprehensive compendium of Open Source 
advocates, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution (7). Pekka 
Himanen prefers the metaphors "The Monastery and the Academy" to Raymond's 
Cathedrals and Bazaars.

Like DiBona and company, Himanen situates what he calls "the hacker ethic" 
in the historical trajectory of the "academic or scientific ethic" dating 
back to Plato's Academy (Himanen 46). Celebrated sociologist of the "network 
society," Manuel Castells, also posits the "openness" of Internet culture in 
the "scholarly tradition" (40). That Open Source practices are not 
historically unique is one of the few general concepts on which Castells, 
Himanen, Raymond, DiBona, Ockman, Stone, and Steven Weber agree: "Open 
source is not a piece of software, and it is not unique to a group of 
hackers" (Weber 224).

Castells suggests that hacker culture of the present-such as FOSS 
communities-represents an "emergence of self-organizing networks 
transcending organizational control" (42). Weber finds this idea problematic 
on two counts. First, the discourse of "self-organization" is not very 
useful, because, as he notes, "self-organization is used too often as a 
placeholder for an unspecified mechanism," and subsequently becomes a 
function of generalized normativities, a "state of nature" narrative (132). 
Instead, Weber delineates some of the individual motivations behind 
participation in an Open Source project, the "economic logic of the 
collective good," and perhaps most important for Weber, the reasons why and 
how people coordinate such complex projects, "to account for a process that 
reframes the character of the collective action problem at play" (225). 
Raymond's famous coining of Linus's Law-"with enough eyeballs, all 
[software] bugs are shallow"-does not address what Weber sees as the real 
phenomenon here, "how those eyeballs are organized" (234).

The second problem with Castells' characterization of hacker culture is the 
source of Weber's most significant contribution here. Instead of talking 
about networks that transcend "organizational control," Weber asks, "What 
happens at the interface, between networks and hierarchies, where they 

The interface between differently structured systems is typically a very 
creative place where new forms of order, organization, and even life arise.. 
This is also the place where the relationship between the open source 
process and more traditional forms of organization for production are being 
worked out. The general point is that one of the key social science 
challenges at present is to conceptualize more clearly how hierarchically 
structured organizations (like large governments and corporations) develop 
and manage relationships with network organizations. (262)

The Success of Open Source is a case study, then, for governance issues 
surrounding the intersection of networks and hierarchies. It's a significant 
theoretical adjustment for the study of FOSS, because much of the popular 
discourse has focused on the heuristics of openness and transparency, and 
not the relationship a relatively open structure can share with something 
hierarchical (or even the ideologically contested spaces within a community 
that is nominally "open"). For example, in his introduction to the essays of 
Richard Stallman, Lawrence Lessig explains the freedom of Free Software in 
terms of the American legal system: "Free software," he writes, "is control 
that is transparent, and open to change, just as free laws, or the laws of a 
'free society,' are free when they make their control knowable, and open to 
change. The aim of Stallman's 'free software movement' is to make as much 
code as it can transparent, and subject to change, by rendering it 'free'" 
(Lessig 9). The heuristics of transparency in Lessig's analogy offer 
cultural theorists a limited model for the ways in which software production 
and use are embedded in the social.[1] The legal system may be 
transparent-for example, its precedents are visible and laws may be 
challenged and reformed-but this does not prevent institutionalized biases 
based on racial discrimination and socioeconomic status from affecting the 
composition and enforcement of the law. Weber's gesture at the interface 
between networks and hierarchies is a generative methodological push in the 
right direction, because it does not fetish the network or the heuristics of 
transparency as endgames or as inherently progressive entities. The 
theoretical dilemma of Open Source is, quoting Weber attacking Lessig, 
"considerably more complicated than 'open=good, closed=bad'" (8). And even 
though Weber early on berates some of the myopic co-optations of Open 
Source-as "a libertarian reverie, a perfect meritocracy, a utopian gift 
culture that celebrates an economics of abundance instead of scarcity," and 
so on (7)-he is willing to concede "the open source process has 
generalizable characteristics, it is a generic production process, and it 
can and will spread to other kinds of production" (17).

An otherwise outstanding study of the mechanisms that make Open Source work 
is compromised somewhat by its repeated misrepresentations of Free Software. 
Weber obviously knows the difference between Free and Open Source Software; 
in fact, he refers to "Stallman's vigorous attempts to convey the message 
that [Free Software] was about freedom, not price" (52). But he insists on 
characterizing Free Software as anticommercial, which it is not, and on 
creating a false dichotomy of Free Software as "moral" or "ethical" and Open 
Source as "pragmatic," when they are both ethical (or "ideological") in some 
sense. The central difference between Free and Open Source Software is that 
Open Source licenses often allow Open Source code to mingle with proprietary 
code, or they allow Open Source code to be converted into a proprietary 
project (thus losing all sense of transparency). You can charge whatever you 
like for Free Software; the difference is you cannot take it proprietary. 
But the distinction between Free and Open Source has nothing to do with 
one's right to charge money for the result. Despite this, Weber makes 
statements such as:

There are sharp ethical differences here with at least some free software 
advocates. These differences became a major point of contention in the late 
1990s when [Bruce] Perens and others recast the Debian Free Software 
Guidelines as "The Open Source Definition," in sharp contrast to the Free 
Software Foundation's stance against commercial software on principle. (86)

The FSF is not opposed to "commercial" software; it is opposed to 
"proprietary" software. The difference is substantial. Later he writes:

The Open Source Initiative partially codified [this] philosophical frame by 
establishing a clear priority for pragmatic technical achievement over 
ideology (which was more central to the culture of the Free Software 
Foundation). A cultural frame based in engineering principles (not 
anticommercialism per se) and focused on robust, high performance products 
gained much wider traction within the developer community. (165)

It may be the case that more software developers are interested in working 
with whatever software license gets the job done (instead of foregrounding 
the ethical argument of the FSF),[2] but this does not make the FSF 
anticommercial, and it does not make the Open Source alternative 
ideologically neutral. The most egregious expression of this 
misrepresentation of the FSF, however, occurs later in the book:

At the same time, computing and the creation of software have become deeply 
embedded in an economic setting. The money stakes are huge. The Free 
Software Foundation (among others) condemns this fact from a moral 
perspective, but that does not make it untrue. (226)

The FSF is not opposed to profiting from software; what it is opposed to is 
proprietary software that conceals its source code. One can still profit 
from Free Software (or Open Source); it simply requires a different business 
model than proprietary software.

The framing of Free Software as the ethical alternative to Open Source 
pragmatism is perhaps less a misrepresentation by Weber than a product of 
his methodology (the difference between political economy and political 
philosophy). He writes, "I am simply taking the position that any argument 
about principles of collaboration in open source should be built from the 
ground up, relying on a careful description of actual behavior rather than 
assumed from abstract principles" (82-83). It's a methodology that dispels 
some of the more utopian depictions of FOSS. But it's also problematic, 
because it assumes "actual behavior" is not prescribed in some way by the 
theoretical suppositions of the author. That is, why does the "actual 
behavior" not reveal Richard Stallman as a champion of human rights and 
universal harmony,[3] instead of a half-crazed zealot fighting a losing 

Weber refers to the "self-limiting" success of the FSF because of Stallman's 
"moral fervor" (52); he says Stallman "sees his leadership role at the Free 
Software Foundation as piously defending an argument about ethics and 
morality" (90); Stallman remains "an intensely moral and political voice in 
the free software world" having "marked out an ethical position on software" 
(112); and so on. When it comes to Free Software, Weber accepts the 
phenomenon for what it claims to be; but when Open Source is being defined, 
he explores the claims of Open Source advocates with great acumen. After 
citing a Boston Consulting Group survey of free software developers on the 
motivation behind their work, a survey which found 34.2 percent of 
respondents choosing "code should be open" as their central motivation, 
Weber denies this is an ideological choice and instead interprets the 
statement this way:

Code should not be open for moral reasons per se, but because development 
processes built around open source code yield better software. The "enemy" 
is not an ideological villain; it is a technical and business practice 
villain and that is what the conflict is about. Microsoft is the exemplar 
because this company is seen as sacrificing a technical aesthetic to 
ruthless business practice aimed at gaining market share and profits. (139)

Here he is interpreting "actual behavior" for his own benefit. What, 
exactly, constitutes "better" software? Why are technical and business 
practices not "ideological"? Only by glossing over those distinctions can 
Weber assert that his understanding of the survey is the "simplest 
interpretation" (139), and presume that no "abstract principles" are being 
imposed on raw data.

The FSF does foreground the ethical component of its software license. To 
draw attention to this self-representation as self-representation is 
accurate. But to define Open Source as simply the pragmatic alternative, as 
something ideologically neutral because its practitioners claim only to be 
interested in engineering not ethics, ignores the obvious reality that Open 
Source is a situated practice that produces its own ethics; engineering 
cultures, while ostensibly in pursuit of technical solutions, are also 
enmeshed in gendered prejudices and the economics of colonial projects, for 
example. Open Source is not inherently good or bad, but it is also not just 
pragmatic, however advocates portray themselves.

There are so many more judicious observations than methodologically-nuanced 
problems in The Success of Open Source that it would be a disservice to 
Weber's achievement to suggest his treatment of Free Software somehow 
eclipses his accomplishment in the study of Open Source Software. The 
Success of Open Source contributes yet another instructive example of the 
function of the social within software. The field of study Lev Manovich 
dubbed "software studies," which examines the "new terms, categories, and 
operations that characterize media that became programmable" (Manovich 48), 
features several complementary scholarly demarcations of software as a 
social artefact. For Manovich, who applies formalism to the relationship 
between new media and aesthetics, "A code may [also] provide its own model 
of the world, its own logical system, or ideology; subsequent cultural 
messages or whole languages created with this code will be limited by its 
accompanying model, system, or ideology" (64). Weber's focus is simply 
reversed: he is more interested in the process by which the code is produced 
than the system or ideology that emanates from the code. But both concepts 
are interrelated. Weber's study and its focus on the convergence of networks 
and hierarchies, as well as its discussions of everything from software 
patents to terrorism, fits among the best works in the field of Software 
Studies, titles such as Geert Lovink's post-Marxist estimations in My Last 
Recession, Matthew Fuller's Deleuzian depiction of software's social 
assemblages in Behind The Blip, and McKenzie Wark's clarion call on behalf 
of the hacker class in A Hacker Manifesto.

Works Cited

Castells, Manuel. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, 
Business, and Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

DiBona, Chris, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone. "Introduction," in Open Sources: 
Voices for the Open Source Revolution. Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman & Mark 
Stone, eds. Sebastapol, California: O'Reilly, 1999.

Fuller, Matthew. Behind The Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software. New 
York: Autonomedia, 2003.

"GNU General Public License." Wikipedia. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_General_Public_License. Accessed 29 March 

Himanen, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. 
London, UK: Secker & Warburg, 2001.

Lessig, Lawrence. "Introduction," in Free Software, Free Society: Selected 
Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Joshua Gay, ed. Free Software Foundation, 

Lovink, Geert. My First Recession. Rotterdam, Netherlands: V2_/NAi 
Publishers, 2003.

Raymond, Eric. The Cathedral and the Bazaar. 2nd ed. Sebastopol, California: 
O'Reilly, 2001.

Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard 
University Press, 2004.

Wayner, Peter. Free For All. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Weber, Steven. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard 
University Press, 2004.


[1] Of course, in Lessig's book Code and other Laws of Cyberspace, he offers 
a more considered position than simply an analogy using the heuristics of 

[2] I say "may be" because while Open Source projects certainly have greater 
market capitalization, it is difficult to say which license actually 
represents more code. Within a software distribution there may be more than 
one license. For example, according to the Wikipedia, "As of April 2004, the 
GPL [the GNU General Public License, a Free Software license] accounted for 
nearly 75% of the 23,479 free software projects listed on Freshmeat, and 
about 68% of the projects listed on SourceForge.. Similarly, a 2001 survey 
of Red Hat Linux 7.1 found that 50% of the source code was licensed under 
the GPL, and a 1997 survey of Metalab, then the largest free software 
archive, showed that the GPL accounted for about half of the licenses used" 
("GNU General Public License").

[3] He isn't, necessarily. I'm being superlative for demonstrative purposes.

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