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Could governments effectively subsidize open-source development?

Open source needs more than government subsidies to thrive, even if France believes otherwise.

The open-source dilemma Matt Asay

At the Utah Open Source Conference yesterday I presented a dilemma. Briefly, the idea is that as open-source buyers grow comfortable with open source they will stop spending money on open source. This leads to tragedy of the commons-type problems and a difficulty in encouraging the creation of more open source.

I therefore asked the question, "Who will pay for open source in the future?" I (and the audience) suggested that the problem may resolve itself over time as enterprises come to recognize that their failure to replenish open-source communities with either cash or code may come to harm the code commons from which they derive increasing amounts of value. I also suggested that Eclipse, Mozilla, and other non-profit foundations provide an answer.

Lastly, I suggested that governments might get involved to shore up funding for open-source software development. As I noted, governments derive massive benefit from open source (and from IT spending, generally). Why not fund more of it?

Europe loves open source. Why not fund it? Matt Asay

I did not, however, have a clear idea as to the right way for this to be done. France, as noted in InfoWorld recently, suggests a way, as does TechDirt, which suggests that military spending could create the next Silicon Valley (so why not an open-source Silicon Valley, given how much the US military is buying into open source?).

France, the second largest market for open source outside the United States, does a range of things to promote open source, but its focus on open source for the rising generation is perhaps most important:

France's future grip on open source looks particularly strong, as it courts the next generation of open source developers. French authorities, for instance, handed out 175,000 open-source-software-equipped memory sticks to high school students last year. Technical universities have made open source their top priority, and some offer advanced degrees.

"All students in France use open source," says Bertrand Diard, CEO and co-founder of Talend, a French pioneer of open source data integration software. "A lot of universities in the U.S., except probably MIT, use traditional tools like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP." As a result, open source talent is more prevalent in France, Diard says; development is faster, and software quality is higher because French developers aren't distracted by proprietary and competing technology. "The culture of open source is more advanced here."

This approach presents benefits and problems for the rise of open source. So long as it is fostered by government, it thrives. In my own company's case, France is a hot market for open-source adoption. At the same time, and despite the French use of "libre" (free as in freedom) to describe free and open-source software, in my experience the French often conflate "libre" with "libre to pay nothing."

In other words, France is a perfect example of the open-source dilemma. That dilemma would be resolved in France and other open-source friendly nations if the government stepped in to provide the majority or all funding for open source. But they don't. Nor should they. The socialized approach reduces incentives for entrepreneurs to sell commercial open-source, and that private enterprise approach to open source is critical to both filling in the gaps that governments can't and won't fill.

After a few thousand years, it's clear that free markets are much more efficient in delivering widespread value. We don't need another Soviet experiment in social provisioning of goods, open source or otherwise.

In sum, France's encouragement of open source is welcome, but not sufficient to overcome the looming dilemma in open-source software creation. Someone has to pay for this stuff, and it's not going to be governments. At least, not alone.