I presented on open source foundations earlier this week to economist friends at TU Munich. I naturally got the question about freeriding: Why does anyone contribute to open source projects, if they could do something else with their time? The cinch: This time we are talking about companies, not invididual people, so the arguments about altruism and signaling don’t apply. So, why do companies contribute and don’t just freeride?
I don’t think this question has been answered well yet in economics, and I’m not sure established theory has a ready answer.
To make it short: I believe the most direct reason why companies contribute to open source projects is to lower their cost of consumption of that very project. Specifically, contributing to a project builds competence in that project, and employing committers builds additional foresight and influence. General compentence makes the company use the software more effectively, avoiding costly bugs and rework. Foresight and influence helps the company avoid misalignment of their products with the evolving open source software they depend on. Such misalignment can also lead to costly rework and missed market opportunities.
I’m not aware of any RoI model that helps an engineering manager determine how much to contribute to achieve how much lower consumption costs and risks. Because of the step function from contributor to committer status for the involved employees, the investment return is not a linear function, that much we can say. The rest remains imperfect science for now.
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