Open Source is Like Art
I’ve read this piece a few times, each time scouring my mind to find a comparable field to serve as a prescident. But the topic of open source dev tools is a complex one, so while one example may sum up one aspect, it’ll fail to describe the whole.
The best (and that’s generous) fit comparison, to my mind, is art.
In some ways I think open source developer tools is like writing, painting, playing music, or other fields where lots of people want to do it, so investment isn’t worthwhile in the majority of cases since there’s always a free blogger working out of passion.
I believe coding to be another form of human expression. It is thoughts made solid and communicable to others. A developer’s opinions and values are embedded in their code. Like other forms of human expression, for many the act is compulsury. Every evening, somewhere a developer bored with her day job starts a new CMS.
If this truly is the model for open source projects, few and far between reach financial success. For every hundred million bedroom musicians, there’s only a couple Bowies and Lennons. Their work gets covered, remixed, and influences the next generation.
If this is the model, then how far can we take it in pursuit of business lessons?
Fuel it with Agency Models
Should we not help it find success with organizations similar to record labels, which negotiate marketing, business development and distribution?
Boy, this sounds like a16z, Y Combinator, and other modern firms. I think this fits our model pretty damn well.
Fund it with Distribution Models
Should we use make money off the distribution, which is how music and books always worked? Music labels figured out how we’d buy plastic discs for $16 and publishers sell us reams of cheap paper for $30.
This is hardly a business for the modern era. Distribution is free, they say.
But this breaks down a little: people aren’t lusting after code. Even if we all still bought physical media, no one would buy a DVD filled with Rails.
Faced with this, music fell back to paying the bills with experiences (tours), branded goods, and licensing. Commercials, not singles, are the hits of the day.
Like I said, “best fit” was a generous word, but I think out of this thought experiment I’ve convinced myself of the following narrative:
- Programming is expression, so there will always be people programming and sharing – for free.
- Shared expressions that resonate with others are consumed, critiqued, remixed, and covered. Open source will grow as long as there is a forum for sharing, consumption, etc. Github, in this way, is akin to a radio station or a jam session.
- People will rely on these collaborative expressions, but they won’t be robust. Investment will occur when those with financial needs end up relying on them. The first people playing rock and roll did it for fun with their friends. When it started to prove its market worth, artists were cared for by businesses who made them into products. The same principle applies to code.
- But like pop stars, institutional code gets boring. Why? Because it needs to regularly produce funds to keep everyone in business. This leaves space for new, risky ideas. When rock hit its commercial peak with hair metal (here is a video of Axel Rose jumping off an aircraft carrier to swim with some dolphins), artists fueled just by their desire for expression filled in the gaps. Some of them ended up proving there was a market appetite, got funding, and hair metal as a mass product died overnight. There will always be Cobains who make art to express themselves in a way that’s not being met at large, just in the same way bored programmers will cobble together new frameworks with unstable, new, exciting new technologies. Then they’ll find a market…
I believe the above. And I believe the above leads to a funding model for development tools and open source at large which funds the projects small communities cook up because they want to, which later find markets. At this point (if you want to go after mass markets), fund them by turning them from expression into reliable products. Sell the experience, the community, the discussion. Everything but the code.
Code is expression. And people will always express themselves if they can’t find their voice. The best play is to wait.