Open Source is Software’s Labor Movement
by Sebastian Benthall
Software developers often have high starting salaries, but wind up not getting paid as much as managers and others who work in software. Why is this? I’d argue that it’s not because software development is any less essential or important to the software business. Rather, the reason is that software developers that work for a proprietary company give away the rights to their work to their employer.
No matter how much the proprietary developer is getting paid, they gradually experience employer lock-in. Why is this? They are the natural experts of the software that they write. This expertise is valuable. So, developers get more and more valuable to a company the longer they work for it.
Employers give developers raises, but not all is well. If the propriety developer leaves their job, they will generally not be able to find as high-paying a job elsewhere, because they will not have the same relevant expertise. That means that there is no incentive on their current employer to pay them for all they contribute. They only need to pay them enough to keep them from quitting.
That means that if you have been working for a long time for a proprietary company, you probably aren’t getting paid enough or getting the benefits you deserve.
Now consider open source developers. By now it is clear that there is a large market for open source companies and freelance consulting. If you are a developer, you should get into that market.
If you are an open source developer, then you get to have the same access to the fruits of your labor as your employer. You are not alienated from your labor, in Marx’s sense of the word. Your employer can never take away the public record of your contributions to an open source project or your standing in the community. And, importantly, the skills you have learned from your hard work are transferable to any other job using the software you have developed.
The result is that even more so than other software developers, open source developers can have their pick of jobs. That means employers have to compete for them even more.
While many companies will shower their developers with perks to keep them on board, savvy open source developers will demand time to do core community work that provides them the intangible social relationships and technical skills that make them more valuable workers–for anyone using their software. And they will demand that new code be vetted through core community processes whenever possible, as opposed to being one off applications.
Proprietary software companies should fear these trends. More and more developers are going to choose open source jobs, so proprietary companies are going to have to pay more for worse programming talent. (This is one of many reasons why proprietary software is doomed.)
Open source companies, on the other hand, should embrace this trend and do their best to satisfy their developer’s demands. Ultimately, these company’s value will be in the superiority of their technology and their developers. The developers want their software to be excellent, because it is the software and their involvement in it, not the company employing them, that guarantees them employment. In the open source economy, this loyalty is not misplaced. Rather, employing companies need to align themselves with it. In so doing, they will achieve technological superiority and community fame. They may err from this path at their peril.
This is an article I keep returning to. Thank you. To me, most of what you write seems plausible, but I wonder if you’ve ever gotten to track down answers to some of related observational/empirical questions: from real world data, does contributing to open source appear to have a positive impact on income? There seem to be some pretty formidable issues with confounding — those who contribute to open source voluntarily likely differ in notable ways from developers who don’t choose to contribute. What trends do we see in the number of open source contributors vs those writing proprietary software? Thanks again for this article and all your other investigations.
Thanks for this kind reply.
Unfortunately, I have never followed up on this empirically. Matt Asay wrote something about this a while back with some evidence to confirm the point about wage differences, but I lost the link and for some reason it is hard to Google.
If I were to follow up on such a study, I’d want to focus on developers getting paid. I don’t think volunteers are a significant percentage of the economy around this.
Long after I wrote this post, I came up with a way of explaining the point to a class that I think works much better. The problem is that there is employer lock-in with proprietary software much like there is vendor lock-in for propriety products. Open technology participates in a more liquid market both on its inputs to production and its consumption.
A major confound is that first mover advantage in the innovation economy leads naturally to temporary monopolies which will be wealthy than their counterparts in more free and competitive markets. So as long as one is reaping the benefits of participating in a monopoly, one can keep an inflated salary. It’s just harder to leave. In theory.