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What’s the role of open source and revenue?

Sometime on the weekend, two individuals who I greatly respect got tangled in an important dialogue. David Tosh posted that open source only works in an ideal world…in the comments, Scott Leslie suggests that open source revenue is a business problem, not a problem with open source. Last November, I posted on the challenges of open source, suggesting that healthy open source projects require an income stream. Recently, I stated that the philosophy of open source is being eroded by free (as in no financial cost) tools like Gmail, flickr, and others that meet the needs of many…but that are closed and proprietary.

Stephen Downes responded strongly to David’s thoughts, suggesting that the focus of open source is not to make money – it’s a passion, a goal, a contribution to community. I will side step the issue (here and here) that requires resolution between David and Stephen. What I see, is that Stephen is presenting the world the way he feels it should be for software development (and sharing…while David is presenting the world the way he feels it should be for developers of software (namely, the ability to earn a living). Perhaps individuals shouldn’t pay for use of software…but if a large organization desires to adopt tools like ELGG, I think it is important that they contribute to ongoing development – in code or in resources. Perhaps this is why open source projects are being abandoned by educators now adopting social technology (this is a subjective statement – I don’t have stats to support this…but I see educators (who don’t have institutional support) adopting technology are now more likely to use proprietary hosted services (for blogs, wikis, audio) instead of open source media wiki, wordpress, and others).

Stephen gives freely of his time daily (up until about two months ago, I believe he produced the newsletter as part of his work with National Research Council…but he was producing it prior to his appointment there) to produce a newsletter read by thousands….and provides mentorship in his spare time to many others through posting comments, highlighting blogs, etc….and David gives freely of his time daily to produce a program used by thousands.

In the end, it’s a matter of how strongly we are committed to an ideology. Richard Stallman, for example, has refused to support the One Laptop per Child initiative because one element of the project (the microkernel in the mesh network chip) is proprietary. Where do we moderate? When do we moderate? To what level do we continue to hold to high ideals? Or when do we (assuming that we do) admit alternative, competing views to our ideals? The answer, of course, must be provided by each individual. And, we see the battle expressed daily in politics, religions, academia, software, and organizations.