The commons problem and open source

Open source is a commons. Just like Central Park, shown to the right.

Open source is a commons. Just like Central Park, shown to the right.

The Internet is a commons. Between them open source and the Internet represent the greatest expansion of the commons in history. The only comparable period might be the late 19th century, when America's great public parks, like Central Park itself, were built.

A commons is shared. It is available to all. And in America today, most of our commons are trashed.

Urban parks are dumping grounds for the homeless. Roadsides are filled with illegal "street spam" signs, as well as litter of all kinds. The oceans are open sewers, the air is polluted.

Most Americans don’t shop in city centers, or other commons. We go to shopping centers, to private land, where owners can protect us and control everyone’s behavior.

These same problems are prevalent on the Internet. Spammers, scammers, hackers, and p2p file hoarders use far more bandwidth than all legal, legitimate users combined.

We adapt well to all these things. We find new business models in them. We profit from the anti-commons attitude on the Internet. Entire industries depend on it.

Could ISPs charge $50/month for minimal broadband speeds if all this bandwidth weren’t being soaked from the commons by thieves? Could anti-viral vendors force subscription renewals without new viruses? Could Microsoft force upgrades based on "security" if no one were testing that security?

The great fear of the open source movement is that people will take advantage of this commons in the same way.

We don’t have open source anti-virals, although they would be easy to write. The wider the consumer space expands for an open source project, the more difficult it is to write a valid business model for it.

You can’t change human nature. You can’t make everyone respect the commons. But defense of any commons includes support for laws, and enforcement of laws, which reduce the damage and hold malefactors responsible.

Defending the commons, in other words, requires that we support government, or something like it. It’s something the real and virtual worlds have in common in 2007. The survival of both depends on answers, and funding, which a consensus of the commons’ users will support.