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FREE SOFTWARE TRAJECTORIES: FROM ORGANIZED PUBLICS TO FORMAL SOCIAL ENTERPRISES?


by Morgan Currie, Christopher Kelty, Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo, University of California, Los Angeles*

INTRODUCTION
By looking at the history of long-lasting and successful Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects, one can observe a common trajectory: they tend to start with a few core developers, then increase in code base size, complexity, and number of contributors and users, then finally find it necessary to create a formal organization to help coordinate the development efforts, maintain hosting infrastructure, secure funding, manage donations, seek partnerships, and protect its members from patent and copyright disputes. The question we discuss in this paper is “what are the characteristics of participation in those projects that do not describe this common trajectory?”
In order to respond to this question, we will compare projects with different trajectories: both those which were initially sponsored by a company and then created a community around them, and those that never constituted (or refused to constitute) a formal organization. By addressing this question, we will highlight fundamental differences and similarities between projects: what makes them grow or fail to attract and foster collaboration and public participation. In order to establish parameters for comparison, five dimensions of FOSS projects will be compared and discussed: 1) project genealogy; 2) tasks (how are they defined, described, and distributed?); 3) alliances (who are the partners? Are they from the public sector, private sector, or both?); 4) governance(is there a formal procedure for decision-making? If not, how are decisions made?) 5) availability (which licenses are used? What is the rationale behind the decision of using a particular license?). We will explore the following projects in order to respond to the questions above: Dyne.org, Debian, Android, and Xara Extreme Linux.
This article is based on research data from the project “Birds of the Internet”, sponsored by National Science Foundation (NSF), and hosted at the Center for Society and Genetics at UCLA. The project uses interpretative social science methods to explore and compare features of participation across a wide range of projects (not limited to Free and Open Source projects). By using comparative analysis, the project seeks to further concept development in the general domain of Internet public participation.

FREE AND OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE TRAJECTORIES
For more than three decades Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has generated an intense and intricate dispersion of technical objects and practices based on global collective efforts. Recent anthropological and sociological accounts of Free Software as a political, technical, and cultural practice further investigated the ongoing dispute regarding individual property over intangible goods and the opposition created by FOSS to the advancement of the transnational intellectual property regime (Coleman 2005; Kelty 2008; Leach 2009; Weber 2005). FOSS offered viable alternatives for remote coordination, distribution, and innovation in software development, made possible by the virtue of its licensing schemes: the constant rebuilding effort over a set of public software licenses which allowed (re)distribution, free use and adaptation of software code. The resulting sociocultural phenomena are situated in between, at least, two major registers: the general reciprocity oriented towards the free circulation of software as public good, and the market economy in which computer technicians offer their computing expertise for remuneration.
From an anthropological standpoint, FOSS is curiously made up by boundary practices in a multitude of social ties and sociotechnical arrangements, bringing together persons, associations, and technical objects: it is a form of craft that is hard to analyze without problematizing the boundaries of established categories and oppositions, such as individual/society, material/immaterial, discourse/practice, private/public, gift/market, persons/objects, work/leisure, and code/expression. In this sense, Free Software is better approached as a quasi-object (Serres 2007) assuming different forms but mainly organized around intersecting recursive publics (Kelty 2008). Public administrators, for instance, may advocate for FOSS as tool for social change, given its potential to foster digital inclusion. Among computer hackers, it is often defined as a highly valued expression of oneself and his/her technical competence. For artists and free culture activists, it is construed as a set of tools to empower cultural production. In the past decade we experienced an implosion of FOSS, currently being practiced under the new rubric of “Open Access”, “Open Data”, and “Open Source Hardware”.
This article analyzes FOSS projects’ participatory structures with informally negotiated or legally formalized aspects that relate to their growth over time. As pointed out by Coleman (2005), “most FOSS projects in their infancy, including Debian, operated without formal procedures of governance and instead were guided by the technical judgments of a small group of participants” (Coleman 2005, p. 325). Formalization typically comes about to address issues of scale and management. Riehle and Deshpande (2006) demonstrated that FOSS projects increased in size exponentially between 1998 and 2006, since “the total amount of source code and the total number of projects double about every 14 months” (Riehle and Deshpande 2006, p.11). As projects scale up, more is at stake beyond the purported division between FOSS and proprietary development models (Lakhani 2007; West 2009). As FOSS projects grow, they tend to organize their activities into businesses, NGOs, and foundations to coordinate software development work and manage intellectual property rights, profit and fund-raising purposes. Spontaneous gatherings of half a dozen hackers become formal organizations over time, transforming substantially the very social fabric which constitutes software development projects.
In our analysis of Internet-based participatory projects more generally (Fish et al. 2011) we proposed two distinct entities which are generally present: first is the “Formal Social Enterprise” (FSE) – legal organizations with formal decision-making procedures that are composed of at least one contractually obligated employee. On the other end of the spectrum are the “Organized Publics” (OP), or the community of participants ………..


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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