Protective mechanisms in the peer governance of open source communities

We continue our examination of a series of research papers on the governance of open source communities.

This is from the article: Guarding the commons: how community managed software projects protect their work. Research Policy 32 (2003) 1179–1198. By Siobhán O’Mahony.

Item 3 to 7 in the overview of tactics below shows the institutional strategies adopted by communities, and they are of course detailed in the original article.

First, What is it about?

Theorists often speculate why open source and free software project contributors give theirwork away. Although contributors make their work publicly available, they do not forfeit their rights to it. Community managed software projects protect their work by using several legal and normative tactics, which should not be conflated with a disregard for or neglect of intellectual property rights. These tactics allow a project’s intellectual property to be publicly and freely available and yet, governable. Exploration of this seemingly contradictory state may provide new insight into governance models for the management of digital intellectual property.”

From the introduction:

the types of threats that they defend against differ from the threats typically targeted with these legal techniques. First, I explicate attributes that open source software shares with public good and common pool resource models. Next, I discuss the research methods and mechanisms used to protect six community managed software projects. Analysis of these mechanisms motivates a discussion of the practices used to manage common pool resources. A conceptualization of open source software that more explicitly recognizes its collective governance is advanced. I conclude by exploring ways in which this conception might challenge existing assumptions about the nature of community managed software and inform future research.”

Second, what are some of the author’s conclusions?

“Findings: tactics to prevent proprietary appropriation: How do community managed software projects protect against the threat of proprietary appropriation?

I identified seven primary tactics:

(1) adopt software licenses with distribution terms that restrict proprietary appropriation;

(2) encourage compliance with licensing terms through normative and legal sanctions;

(3) incorporate to hold assets and protect individual contributors from liability;

(4) transfer individual property rights to collectively managed non-profit corporations;

(5) trademark the brands and logos designed to represent their work;

(6) assign trademarks to a foundation; and

(7) actively protect the project’s brand.”

From the discussion:

This research shows that contributors to community managed projects have interests and rights over their work, and that they are interested in protecting their intellectual property. The assumption that open source contributors give their work away must be modified in order to account for the ways in which community managed projects protect their work.

Moglen (1999), among others (e.g. Tuomi, 2000), have argued that Section (2)(b) of the GNU GPL creates a commons “to which anyone may add but from which no one may subtract.” Without the legal tactics identified in this study, open source and free software might be in danger of becoming a subtractable good. While the availability of open source software will not diminish with greater use, those who do not comply with the norms of the community could diminish its future value and its availability to others.”

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