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12. Coping With Success

The Tragedy of the Commons may not be applicable to open-source development as it happens today, but that doesn't mean there are not any reasons to wonder if the present momentum of the open-source community is sustainable. Will key players defect from cooperation as the stakes become higher?

There are several levels on which this question can be asked. Our `Comedy of the Commons' counter-story is based on the argument that the value of individual contributions to open source is hard to monetize. But this argument has much less force for firms (like, say, Linux distributors) which already have a revenue stream associated with open source. Their contribution is already being monetized every day. Is their present cooperative role stable?

Examining this question will lead us to some interesting insights about the economics of open-source software in the real world of present time -- and about what a true service-industry paradigm implies for the software industry in the future.

On the practical level, applied to the open-source community as it exists now, this question is usually posed in one of two different ways. One: will Linux fragment? Two: conversely, will Linux develop a dominant, quasi-monopolistic player?

The historical analogy many people turn to when suggesting that Linux will fragment is the behavior of the proprietary-Unix vendors in the 1980s. Despite endless talk of open standards, despite numerous alliances and consortia and agreements, proprietary Unix fell apart. The vendors' desire to differentiate their products by adding and modifying OS facilities proved stronger than their interest in growing the total size of the Unix market by maintaining compatibility (and consequently lowering both entry barriers for independent software developers and total cost of ownership for consumers).

This is quite unlikely to happen to Linux, for the simple reason that all the distributors are constrained to operate from a common base of open source code. It's not really possible for any one of them to maintain differentiation, because the licenses under which Linux code are developed effectively require them to share code with all parties. The moment any distributor develops a feature, all competitors are free to clone it.

Since all parties understand this, nobody even thinks about doing the kinds of maneuvers that fragmented proprietary Unix. Instead, Linux distributors are forced to compete in ways that actually benefit the consumer and the overall market. That is, they must compete on service, support, and their design bets on what interfaces actually conduce to ease installation and use.

The common source base also forecloses the possibility of monopolization. When Linux people worry about this, the name usually muttered is ``Red Hat'', that of the largest and most successful of the distributors (with somewhere around 90% estimated market share in the U.S.). But it is notable that within days after the May 1999 announcement of Red Hat's long-awaited 6.0 release -- before Red Hat's CD-ROMs actually shipped in any quantity -- CD-ROM images of the release built from Red Hat's own public FTP site were being advertised by a book publisher and several other CD-ROM distributors at lower prices than Red Hat's expected list.

Red Hat itself didn't turn a hair at this, because its founders understand very clearly that they do not and cannot own the bits in their product; the social norms of the Linux community forbid that. In a latter-day take on John Gilmore's famous observation that the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it, it has been aptly said that the hacker community responsible for Linux interprets attempts at control as damage and routes around them. For Red Hat to have protested the pre-release cloning of its newest product would have seriously compromised its ability to elicit future cooperation from its developer community.

Perhaps more importantly in present time, the software licenses that express these community norms in a binding legal form actively forbid Red Hat from monopolizing the sources of the code their product is based on. The only thing they can sell is a brand/service/support relationship with people who are freely willing to pay for that. This is not a context in which the possibility of a predatory monopoly looms very large.

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