Much of the innovative programming that powers the Internet, creates operating systems, and produces software is the result of “open source” code, that is, code that is freely distributed—as opposed to being kept secret—by those who write it. Leaving source code open has generated some of the most sophisticated developments in computer technology, including, most notably, Linux and Apache, which pose a significant challenge to Microsoft in the marketplace. As Steven Weber discusses, open source’s success in a highly competitive industry has subverted many assumptions about how businesses are run, and how intellectual products are created and protected.
Traditionally, intellectual property law has allowed companies to control knowledge and has guarded the rights of the innovator, at the expense of industry-wide cooperation. In turn, engineers of new software code are richly rewarded; but, as Weber shows, in spite of the conventional wisdom that innovation is driven by the promise of individual and corporate wealth, ensuring the free distribution of code among computer programmers can empower a more effective process for building intellectual products. In the case of Open Source, independent programmers—sometimes hundreds or thousands of them—make unpaid contributions to software that develops organically, through trial and error.
Weber argues that the success of open source is not a freakish exception to economic principles. The open source community is guided by standards, rules, decisionmaking procedures, and sanctioning mechanisms. Weber explains the political and economic dynamics of this mysterious but important market development.
A valuable new account of the [open-source software] movement.
Weber’s ideas are timely and informative for anyone who wants to explain or advocate Open Source… The Success of Open Source…gives a readable, thought-provoking, and occasionally funny account of what Open Source is and means, making it an extremely valuable resource for those who want to engage and discuss these issues on an intellectual level.
In the world of open-source software, true believers can be a fervent bunch. Linux, for example, may act as a credo as well as an operating system. But there is much substance beyond zealotry, says Steven Weber, the author of The Success of Open Source… An open-source operating system offers its source code up to be played with, extended, debugged, and otherwise tweaked in an orgy of user collaboration. The author traces the roots of that ethos and process in the early years of computers… He also analyzes the interface between open source and the worlds of business and law, as well as wider issues in the clash between hierarchical structures and networks, a subject with relevance beyond the software industry to the war on terrorism.
While much in Weber’s account will be familiar to anyone concerned with this debate, his book should make this extraordinary phenomenon understandable to a much wider audience… [The Success of Open Source] deserve[s] the careful attention of a wide audience, including, especially, governments.
Weber sees the central issues raised by [open source software] as property, motivation, organisation and governance. He uses a study of the open source movement to illuminate the motivation of programmers and the way [open source software] projects are co-ordinated and governed, and to ask if there are lessons in it for society… Weber’s work brings to mind an earlier book, The Machine That Changed the World, a study of how Toyota’s production system transformed the way cars are made everywhere. That book made two simple points: that the Toyota ‘system’ was a car, and that it was not uniquely Japanese. Steve Weber’s book can be—and is—similarly summarised: ‘Open source is not a piece of software, and it is not unique to a group of hackers.’ And it has the potential to change the world.
Weber’s book deserves the glowing response it has received within and outwith the computing community, and provides a careful, thought-provoking study of an important phenomenon of the twentieth century. For these reasons alone it is worth reading. And while it will of course appeal to those interested or participating in the Open Source movement, for the information professional, in particular, it offers helpful insight into the advantages and limits of sustainable models of cooperative effort that do not depend on remuneration or hierarchy. This is particularly pertinent as libraries increasingly make available metadata they have created about digital or physical assets, and as they are involved in the management of digital assets… [I]nformation professionals are increasingly called on to administer, arbitrate, and communicate about digital rights. Many of those they interact with in this capacity, especially in an academic setting, will have been influenced by the Open Source movement or have parallel attitudes to collaborative work—this book may assist them to develop a more nuanced articulation of opinion and a greater understanding of the issues.
Steven Weber has produced a significant, insightful book that is both smart and important. The most impressive achievement of this volume is that Weber has spent the time to learn and think about the technological, sociological, business, and legal perspectives related to open source. The Success of Open Source is timely and more thought provoking than almost anything I’ve come across in the past several years. It deserves careful reading by a wide audience.
Ever since the invention of agriculture, human beings have had only three social-engineering tools for organizing any large-scale division of labor: markets (and the carrots of material benefits they offer), hierarchies (and the sticks of punishment they impose), and charisma (and the promises of rapture they offer). Now there is the possibility of a fourth mode of effective social organization—one that we perhaps see in embryo in the creation and maintenance of open-source software. My Berkeley colleague Steven Weber’s book is a brilliant exploration of this fascinating topic.
We can blindly continue to develop, reward, protect, and organize around knowledge assets on the comfortable assumption that their traditional property rights remain inviolate. Or we can listen to Steven Weber and begin to make our peace with the uncomfortable fact that the very foundations of our familiar ‘knowledge as property’ world have irrevocably shifted.
- 2004, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 320 pages
- 0-13/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.