Open Source Development: About Community and Sponsored Projects

Classifying Open Source production models is not an academic curiosity, as result from recent conversations on how the development model affects at large the software life-cycle and, more important, the business strategy.

Theodore Ts’o opened a conversation about organic vs non organic open source development, following a Mozilla’s organic definition. Matthew Aslett later reopened the discussion further exploring the bee keeper analogy, getting some reactions from Stormy Peters and James Dixon (original author of the Bee Keeper model).

Sponsored DevelopersAre all your developers corporate-sponsored? by camera_rwanda

Beyond definitions, the way open source firms cope with their communities, and how their business is affected by the relationship, worth some attention. The relationships between firms and communities in open source software has been analyzed by very few academic papers so far. Dahlander and Magnusson in their paper “Relationships between open source software companies and communities: Observations from Nordic firms” distinguished three different approaches to handle the firm–community relationship: symbiotic, commensalistic, and parasitic. Managerial issues vary depending on the chosen approach. The symbiotic approach seem to be the most promising in terms of the possibility to influence the community, but firms adopting it are also confronted with challenging managerial issues related to decision rights and control.

West and O’Mahony in “contrasting community building in sponsored and community founded open source projects” investigated how changes in building and attracting an “external” when open source firms spin out internally developed code. The following table from the paper reports key issues for community-led and sponsored open source projects.


Community initiated


Reasons for Initiation

  • Solve a problem
  • Create a “free software” alternative to proprietary solution
  • Achieve greater adoption
  • Get development help on areas that are of ow priority for the firm (e.g. special dialects)

Key Issues

  • Garnering Resources
  • Building healthy community, attracting talented developers
  • Distributing software
  • Gaining “mindshare” with minimal marketing
  • Gaining legitimacy
  • Building healthy community, attracting talented contributors
  • Resolving ambiguity about control and ownership

Contributor Motivations

  • To make software happen
  • To gain fulfillment
  • To build and learn new skills
  • To Solve personal and professional problems
  • To complete areas that are of high priority for contributors
  • To gain visibility by prospective employers
  • To influence sponsor’s alignment with complementary projects


  • Democratic, transparent, usually meritocratic
  • Some leadership and stratification
  • Varies but usually sponsor retains direct or indirect control

The paper suggests that ongoing relationships between the sponsor and the community face a trade-off between appropriating returns from the commons versus providing incentives for external participants to join the community. As a matter of fact unilateral decisions and legal obligations make difficult recruiting contributors. On the contrary governance mechanisms enabling the sponsor to determine project’s evolution through pluralistic support are definitely of help in this respect.

Apache, the Collaborative Software Initiative, Eclipse, or SAKAI seem to follow very different approaches to community building, technology transfer and fostering open source ecosystems. That is for another post, maybe more than one: I will make some interview before reaching any conclusion, in if any.

Technorati Tags: Commercial Open Source, community-driven, collaborative software initiative, open source projects, SAKAI, Dahlander, Magnusson, OMahony, West