Who needs a business plan?

Summary:One of the questions that is being asked regularly is "what is the business plan for open source?" This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?

One of the questions that is being asked regularly is "what is the business plan for open source?" This has always struck me as odd, as it is akin to asking "what is the business plan for punk rock?" or "what is the business plan for modern art?" Open source projects may need business plans, companies that utilize open source certainly do -- but the concept of open source itself does not.

It's always seemed a bit silly to try to lump the entire open source development ecosystem in together in that way, because you simply can't apply the same approach to every project -- even if you assume that every project is motivated by some kind of commercial success, which would be a mistake in and of itself.

I was thinking about that when reading Andy Oram's "The Commons Doesn't Have a Business Plan." Oram discusses the ways that "business imperatives, imprudently pursued, can weaken the commons, that fertile field from which the most promising future businesses will emerge." Oram discusses how open source fits in with the concept of a public commons, and recent developments that threaten the intellectual commons.

Could our intellectual heritage suffer a "tragedy of the commons," as described by Garrett Hardin when he introduced that term in 1968? What Hardin described was a degradation or exhaustion of the commons through overuse. Clearly, there can be no tragedy of the intellectual commons in this sense, because the commons of ideas provides enough for every taker. Rather, two different tragedies threaten it.

The threat most resembling the classic tragedy is a fencing off of the commons, a predatory and premature division of its goods among private owners. This indeed can starve the commons. The trend worries librarians, researchers, creative artists, and others responsible for tending the commons of ideas.

I'm kind of surprised that Oram doesn't list patents as an example of "fencing off the commons," but he does touch on extensions to copyright, restrictions on making personal copies of movies and music, and use of intellectual property to squelch public debate. (Specifically in reference to Cisco's heavy-handed tactics last week.)

This is definitely a topic that needs discussion. On the one hand, there's the desire to "monetize" everything under the sun. On the other, there's the need for a "commons" of intellectual property that is not owned by anyone, that can be used by anyone to create new works -- possibly for commercial gain, or for the good of society, or just because it's fun. Right now, the public interest and preservation of the commons, is taking a backseat to monetization. This may be good news for a handful of companies and individuals, but it's bad news for the rest of us.

Topics: Open Source


Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is the community manager for openSUSE, a community Linux distro sponsored by Novell. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist primarily covering the Linux and FOSS beat, and wrote for a number of publications, such as Linux Magazine, Linux.com, Sys Admin, UnixReview.com, IBM developer... Full Bio

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