How Open Source Software Works: "Free" User-to-User Assistance

Intellectual Property and Open Source

Article Snapshot


Karim R. Lakhani and Eric Von Hippel


MIT Sloan Working Paper No. 4117-00


This paper studies how open source software provides help services for users.

Policy Relevance

Open source business models can work better than traditional software models in supporting users.

Main Points

  • Open source software (OSS) lets users change code to suit their needs. Some types can only be redistributed for free. Some believe open source does a poor job of supporting users.

  • Apache, an open source software product, offers help to users through Apache’s Usenet help forum. Users help one another.
    • Apache’s help system is rated higher than commercial systems.
    • The system handles inquiries on a small scale, and would need to change if volume increased.

  • Users that help others often do so to learn from reading and answering questions.
    • The cost of answering is very low.
    • The risk of revealing sensitive information is low.

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