Open Source And Responsibility

Published: Mar 7, 2013 at 14:00 UTC

Today I read a comment on Github about an important feature that is missing in one of my open source libraries. I won't link to it, but it basically said: "If you care about your library and the community, you must implement this feature". These were not his exact words, but author of the comment was clearly demanding more gratis attention for his problem based on my responsibility to the community.

And he is not alone. Several people in the discussion agreed with him, and there are many public examples of people going as far as suggesting that open source authors have parental responsibilities for their projects.

Tom Dale has suggested that you should not "release more than you can realistically maintain". And that "it takes maturity to realize that open source is a responsibility".

I disagree.

Open source is not perfect. And we would be better off accepting this.

Don't get me wrong. I have been on both sides of this table, experiencing critical problems with open source software that I was unable to fix myself, receiving no support. It sucks.

But whose fault is it? We can actually objectively answer this question. When using somebody else's software, I need to follow the law, more specifically copyright. So I have to check for a license file and comply with it. Which usually means I'll come across something like this:

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.

This is the ugly side of open source. Nobody is responsible for the vast majority of projects.

And unfortunately simply demanding open source authors to become more responsible does not work very well. I mean you can try, but hopefully I can give you some advise that will yield better results.

In my opinion, the key to successfully leveraging open source projects, is to become a responsible consumer. By that I mean acquiring the ability to estimate the "total costs of ownership" that arise from relying on somebody's open source project. The idea being that you "cannot consume more than you can afford".

There are many approaches to this, but here are a few questions that help me in this process:

And while it's not pleasant, this approach has led me to realize, that in some cases, I simply couldn't afford certain software, even so it was offered to me at no charge.

Of course this process is problematic, and there has to be a better way. We need to find better incentives for open source authors to take on more responsibility, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of low marginal costs.

Luckily I have a few ideas for this, and going forward, I will explain how we are using them for our next product, and how to make money with open source as a small bootstrapped company.

However, becoming a responsible consumer will continue to pay off, so please consider it.

-- Felix Geisendörfer
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Last Update: Mar 7, 2013 at 14:00 UTC

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