Open Source and the Free Rider Problem

In open sourceOpen Source Open Source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. Open Source **must be** delivered via a licensing model, see GPL., we aim to make our projects more sustainable and make sure they survive and thrive long after we have stopped being there for them. It’s an immense and wonderful responsibility, and a complicated one! In discussing how to future-proof WordPress, we cite two economic problems as a shorthand for the open source problem we see: the Tragedy of the Commons and the Free Rider Problem.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about these two theoretical problems a lot, and there was something I noticed in each conversation. The folks I was talking to would advocate for two opposing solutions, sometimes in the same breath, and at the same time I could identify how those opposing solutions could work/do work in WordPress. 

To figure out what might be behind that, I spoke to a doctoral professor of economics and he clarified that these two economic problems are distinct but related, and apply to two different situations. Even though both of those situations exist in open source, we sometimes use the terms interchangeably to illustrate a single problem—which can cause confusion.

Some Quick Clarifications

The Tragedy of the Commons is the most recognized economic problem we discuss in open source. It uses the example of a public pasture to demonstrate what could happen if one group sent all their sheep there for the best grass without doing anything to make sure the grass remained the best and greenest for other sheep.

The Free Rider Problem is discussed less, but is one of the harder to solve problems of tending to the commons. It deals with public goods that have the same quality no matter how many people use it, or how many times. This results in a lack of urgency and priority for supporting the public good.

Take for example, public media. Everyone can listen to public radio stations, almost without limit, regardless of whether or not you contribute. That *could* lead to underfunded programming, relative to what would benefit listeners (and other free riders, like news sources that reference the station), resulting in  a reliance on unpaid interns and a more limited information network. So, while a public station is able to operate and produce a good product, programming could be better or more plentiful if they had more resources.

What Does it Have to do with Open Source?

The Tragedy of the Commons is specific to a resource that can be used up and so needs some way to watch after equitable access and long term maintenance. The way it shows up in open source is when we’re looking at contributions.

Contributing requires time or money and frequently some specialized knowledge, and there are limits to how much is available. Unlike the software, we can never treat a single maintainer as an infinite resource. As WordPress scales, having a little structure and support for contributors can help keep any one contributor from being overloaded. Mostly what is important to know is that this is considered a solved problem if you use Ostrom’s 8 Principles. I can cover that in a separate post if folks find it interesting!

But the Free Rider Problem, since it’s specific to resources that can’t be used up and therefore don’t need anyone to watch after their equitable distribution, shows up when we’re looking at the WordPress software.

No matter how many new sites are launched using WordPress, the coreCore Core is the set of software required to run WordPress. The Core Development Team builds WordPress. software does not become any worse for wear, and there is no end to the available “seats.” Access to and use of the software is wholly unconstrained and any advancement to the software benefits everyone equally regardless of the size of their company or contribution.

So how is the Free Rider Problem solved?

It is possible for an open source project to suffer from the free rider problem, but it depends on a clear understanding of the point at which it actually could become a problem. The Free Rider Problem doesn’t assume that ALL free riders are inherently bad. In WordPress’ case, we want a vast number of our users to be able to access the software (and hosting, training, information, etc) at remarkably low cost. The free riders that pose a problem are frequently those who get disproportionate value compared to what they contribute.

It could be argued that organizations like public media, WordPress, or Wikipedia have overcome the Free Rider Problem by effective use of social infrastructure and by being available to a large enough community that the support is sufficient. Alternatively, it could also be argued that all of those organizations are actually under-supported relative to what would be best for our communities, therefore requiring them to limit the programs and services they offer.

I believe that the crux of the discussion should be this:

The builders and extenders of WordPress are invested in this software being the best for everyone using it. Collectively, we support the creation and maintenance of WordPress through our community of contributors. How can we rebalance the tenacious need for contribution with the immense benefit WordPress brings to everyone, including our free riders and contributors?