In this post we explain why we think that open source needs a business model attached to it to truly thrive. The ideal situation is a Nash equilibrium, which you could also call a Victory of the Commons.
This is the write up of a presentation Joost gave at WordCamp Europe in 2013, which is embedded below. The presentation is based on an earlier version he presented in Dutch at Drupaljam. He created this presentation together with Marieke, who also wrote this post based on it.
Note: about half way through the video a short clip from A Beautiful Mind that got clipped out due to copyright. That clip is embedded on its own a bit below in this post.
At Yoast we make money using the open source platform WordPress. For some people, this might feel counter-intuitive. Can you make money while giving knowledge away? And should all of your software be free if you work with open source?
In this post we would like to explain how making money in an open source community is not weird at all. In fact, our point is that making money in an open source community is even beneficial for the open source community (and of course, for us too).
Tragedy of the commons
The concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons“ was first introduced by Hardin (1968). Hardin’s article has been influential in economics, but also among ecologists and environmental policy researchers. More importantly for us, it is applicable to common-pool resources. And in our opinion, the open source community can be seen as such a common-pool resource. Let us explain the Tragedy of the Commons:
Imagine a pasture. A green pasture. A pasture that is open to all shepherds in the neighborhood. Every herder can put sheep on the pasture. The sheep will grow, and give wool, lambs and meat. All these benefits are for the shepherd himself. So each herder is motivated to add more animals. This will lead to overgrazing. The pasture will become less productive. Even when the number of animals exceeds the capacity of the pasture, each herder is still motivated to add more and more animals. Surely, the herder receives all of the proceeds for the animals and only a partial share of the cost of overgrazing. Eventually, this leads to the tragedy, the ruination of the pasture.
Open source: a reversed tragedy of the commons
Free-riding is a concept which refers to people who take the benefits of a common-pool resource, without investing in it. Applying it to our pasture-metaphor would mean that people put their cattle on the pasture, without participating in taking care of the pasture. Free-riding can be very harmful to common-pool resources. This is the case because it reduces the inclination for other participants to keep participating and doing what is best for the common-pool resource. What is the use of taking care of the pasture, if others aren’t willing to do it either? For that reason, free-riding can be rather contagious.
Of course, lots of people gain profit through the free WordPress software and functionality, which is offered for free. However, these people are, in many cases, not the same people who invest in the WordPress community. So a small number of developers is mowing lawns and watering the pasture, while a large group of WordPress users is putting sheep on the pasture and therefore benefits from the services of the developers.
The open source community is a common-pool resource. Let’s look at the open source community as a pasture. It is a platform in which people can participate and contribute and from which users can download software for free. Contributing by developing software and donating your knowledge to the open source community can be seen as taking care of our pasture. But what about the sheep in this example?
It seems as though in the open source community, developers take great care of their pasture, but hesitate to reap their benefits. It is like a reversed tragedy of the commons: in the WordPress community, there are many benefactors who bring fantastic ideas and products to the community, but who make virtually no money. So, we are mowing lawns and watering our pasture, while there aren’t any sheep grazing (in fact, it is even worse, see our aside on ‘free-riding’).
That is what Joost was doing up until 2010. He developed all kind of functionality for the WordPress community. Entirely for free. Beautiful and useful of course, but from 2006 onwards he had a child to feed. So, Joost needed a full-time job in order to make a living.
Insights from Adam Smith and John Nash
Adam Smith stated that if every individual does what is best for him, the situation would be most optimal. Assuming Adam Smith was right, Joost would have chosen to focus solely on his professional career in 2006 and quit working for the WordPress community immediately. Fortunately, John Nash already showed (both theoretically as well as mathematically) that Adam Smith was wrong, as is explained well in this scene from A Beautiful Mind:
Applying John Nash’s principle to open source
According to John Nash, the optimal result will come when individuals do what is best for them and for their group. This means that the optimal result will come by both taking good care of the pasture, as well as using it for your cattle. Applying this to the WordPress community would mean that one should invest in open source software development as well as in individual gain (through the open source community).
Making profits in open source
Although counter-intuitive for some, developing open source software and making profits can go hand in hand. We would even dare to state that making profits in our company enhances the development of an open source community like the WordPress-community. As Joost started making money of his WordPress-work, he was able to quit his full-time consultancy job. Now, he can spend much more time on the development of open source products and in fact hire other people to develop alongside him.
Win-win equilibrium: a victory of the commons
John Nash calculated an equilibrium. So, the optimal result will appear when harvesting your pasture and reaping the fruits from your cattle is in the right proportion. The most optimal result for us will appear if we actively develop new open source software as well as profiting from selling (support for) open source software. For us, it also means that we want to continue to distribute free plugins. Simultaneously, we sell plugins and offer support for paying costumers. Making profits will allow us to invest more in open source. Investing in open source will allow us to make more profits. It truly is a win-win equilibrium!
Of course, an equilibrium is always vulnerable. Putting too much effort into developing free open source software would eventually result in a bankruptcy of our company. Putting too much effort in maximizing our own profit would result in damaging our reputation and by doing so in diminishing profits (and of course in less open source development).
Making money with the development and distribution of open source software is very possible. This combination is not weird at all; it is a nice Nash-equilibrium!
This situation could be seen as a Victory of the commons: a nice green pasture and lots of healthy sheep.