Open-source is based upon transparency and collaboration amongst the developer community to develop software with source code that is open to be used and contributed to. Open-source therefore operates on the basis of shared IP and many open-source projects are publicly accessible on repositories such as GitHub. Each project will be licensed by the author, which is a legally binding agreement with the user about how the open-source software can be employed as a component. Permissive licenses, for example, will allow the addition of proprietary software; whereas copyleft licenses ensure all derived works remain open-source and publicly available - essentially the opposite of copyright. All open-source licenses must comply with the Open Source Definition, as defined by the Open Source Initiative. On a micro level, there are different models for the governance, maintenance and funding of individual projects. These can be broadly split between community and commercial open-source projects.
Key decision makers
- Foundations, such as the Linux Foundation and the Apache Software Foundation, are non-profit organisations that drive and govern open-source projects. They coordinate the developer community and are important influencers in the direction of open-source. These foundations are funded by donations and membership.
- Big Tech companies, with their vast reach and financial resources, play a significant role in funding and contributing to open-source software development, as well as open-sourcing their own components, which are not part of their core business IP. A key example is Google’s development and 2014 release of the Kubernetes open-source project. Microsoft acquired GitHub, the largest open-source collaboration and repository platform, in 2018 and has since been one of the most significant contributors to the open-source community, particularly in terms of employee contributions on GitHub.
- An important and distinguishing factor of open-source software is that, even with the powerful stakeholders mentioned above, individual developers, particularly committers, and smaller organisations can still have a big impact as they can all contribute to and maintain open-source projects. They therefore also play a role in the direction of open-source.
Open-source commercial business models
Despite the values of collaboration, transparency and community in the pursuit of new and freely accessible software being at the heart of the open-source movement, there are companies that have adopted certain business models to commercially gain from open-source projects. These can be split into 3 main categories:
- Open-core (e.g. ElasticSearch)
- A company offers a “core” version of a product, typically based on a popular open-source project, with limited features as free and open-source software and, at the same time, an add-on commercial version is released as proprietary software. The resulting combination of open-source and closed-source attributes is sometimes referred to as freemium software.
- Cloud services / hosting (e.g. Gatsby Cloud)
- Typically, an open-source company hosts and manages its entire stack, including the features available in the open core and the premium features of its software, in the cloud and charges users subscription or consumption fees to access various tiers of functionality. For example, they may allow their software to be run on other servers for free, but charge for a hosted version.
- Professional services (e.g. Red Hat, Canonical)
- Companies that sponsor open-source projects and then provide services to support the adoption and ongoing use of the open-source software such as consulting, training and technical assistance.
Open-source and environmental sustainability
There are a number of parallels between the fundamentals underpinning the open-source movement and that of the fight against climate change:
- Transparency and the availability of data is at the core of open-source projects and this is also fundamental to ensuring environmental impact is measured across all industries, particularly the energy sector.
- Despite a commercial presence in both movements, they rely heavily on the non-monetary intrinsic motivation of individuals collaborating to realise societal-wide benefits.
- Open-source and the environment are non-excludable and non-rivalrous and can, therefore, be considered as public goods.
- Open-source components and environmental sustainability both advocate the re-use and sharing of existing resources rather than over-production.
- There are also open-source projects directly combating climate change
It is important to remember, however, that whilst no measurement exists for energy-usage in the development and use of open-source software components; these similarities, described above, can’t be enough to assume that a company employing open-source software is necessarily behaving more sustainably.