Motivation and Sorting in Open Source Software Innovation

Innovation and Economic Growth, Intellectual Property and Open Source

Article Snapshot


Sharon Belenzon and Mark Schankerman


CEPR Discussion Paper DP7012, 2008


This paper explores the motivations of programmers who contribute to open source software.

Policy Relevance

With sufficient incentives, significant innovation can be induced without monetary compensation.

Main Points

  • Open source software can be modified by anyone, under conditions governed by a license specific to a project.
    • Open source licenses are classified by this paper into “open” and “closed”, with “closed” being a relative term indicating some restrictions on the use of project code.
  • Typically work on open source projects is unpaid. In order for rational software developers to contribute to a project, instead of simply letting others work to produce a product that anyone can enjoy, they must derive some private benefit from participating. Three types of benefits are plausible:
    • Some programmers are ideologically committed to open source software.
    • Some programmers may participate in order to develop a valuable reputation for competence or expertise.
    • Some programmers may contribute code in expectation of reciprocity from other project members.
  • Open source developers were found to generally fall into two groups.
    • Some developers worked primarily on open license projects; these tended to be consumer-oriented and small, and these developers seemed to work for their own pleasure or to advance an open-source ideal.
    • Other developers worked primarily on closed license projects. These projects were more oriented toward producing tools for other developers and were more frequently sponsored by firms. Such developers seem to be pursuing career goals in their work.
  • When designing any project, it is important to understand the motivations of participants in order to induce participants to contribute.


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