Open-source software development projects — Internet-based communities of software developers who voluntarily collaborate in order to develop software that they or their organizations need — have become an important economic and cultural phenomenon. Sourceforge.net, a major infrastructure provider and repository for such projects, lists more than 10,000 of them and more than 300,000 registered users. The digital software products emanating from such projects are commercially attractive and widely used in business and government (by IBM, NASA and the German government, to name just a few). Because such products are deemed a “public good” — meaning that one person’s use of them does not diminish another’s benefits from them — the open-source movement’s unique development practices are challenging the traditional views of how innovation should work.
A Brief History
In the 1960s and 1970s, software development was carried out mostly by scientists and engineers working in academic, government and corporate laboratories. They considered it a normal part of their research culture to freely exchange, modify and build upon one another’s software, both individually and collaboratively. In 1969, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) established the ARPAnet, the first transcontinental, high-speed computer network. ARPAnet allowed developers to exchange software code and other information widely, easily, swiftly and cheaply. It grew in popularity and eventually linked several universities, defense contractors and research laboratories. However, its limits soon became apparent. The network could connect approximately 250 hosts, too few to cater to the growing communication needs among engineers and academics. A number of technological advancements that emerged between 1940 and 1970 led to the development of the Internet project that would eventually solve this bottleneck. Today the Internet has more than 100 million users worldwide and has become the major breeding ground for open-source software development.
The communal culture was strongly present among a group of programmers at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, this group received a major jolt when MIT licensed some of the code to a commercial software firm, which promptly restricted access to the source code of that software, and hence prevented noncompany personnel — including MIT hackers who had participated in developing it — from continuing to use it as a platform for further learning and development.