Open Source software development – just another case of collective invention?

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Open Source software projects are examples of an innovation and organization model, which relies neither on the price system nor on formal hierarchies nor on contracts. Does Open Source (OS) represent a new model, and under what conditions can it be employed in other contexts? A look at history shows that OS seems to be similar to other examples in the past and present that can be summarized by the term “collective invention”.

However, a closer analysis shows that there is one main difference: Other collective invention regimes had a limited lifespan, which ended after the development of a dominant design. It is argued that two factors can explain why this is not the case with OS. Firstly, the OS community developed the important institutional innovation of OS licenses that enable OS software to survive as a common property. Secondly, these licenses are mainly enforced by pro-socially motivated contributors. We characterize the conditions under which OS communities are able to develop and sustain a pro-social commitment. We conclude by pointing out the vulnerability of these conditions to the developments in patent legislation in the software industry, which threaten this promising new model of innovation and organization.

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