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Center for Contract and Economic Organization


For several years now, open source software products have been gaining prominence and market share. Yet the products themselves are not as provocative as the way in which they are developed and distributed. Two related features of the open source model are distinctive: the use of collaborative development structures that extend beyond the boundaries of a single firm, and the lack of reliance on intellectual property ("IP") rights as a means of appropriating the value of the underlying technologies. Firm-level control of intellectual property is replaced by a complex set of relations, both informal and sometimes contractual, among strategic partners not joined by firm boundaries. I argue here that those relations reflect not coalescence towards industry norms driven solely by superior output, but rather a series of strategic moves and countermoves that have had the effect of opening some markets while closing others, substantially reducing profit margins, and fostering consolidation of a traditionally fragmented industry.

I have written elsewhere about the role of intellectual property rights in proprietary models of software development, where intellectual property rights are used (albeit somewhat ineffectively) by firms to exploit the value of their internal research and development ("R&D") investments. In that work, I generally reject the idea that the sheer number of patents is creating a thicket that deters innovation, largely because of the evidence of a robust startup market and of investors' lack of concern about patents held by competitors. More generally, I argue that many of the criticisms of software patents fail to account for the potential benefits those patents provide to smaller firms and focus much too heavily on the transaction costs associated with the massive patent portfolios that the larger industry participants have acquired (the so-called "arms race" build up). 1

Open source development models work differently. Because open source development proceeds on the premise that no individual or firm will have proprietary control of the software, the firms participating in those development projects might have little need for patents. The cooperative nature of development obviates any need for the actual and implicit cross licensing that provides access to technology throughout the proprietary software sector. The problem, however, is that the open source community does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world in which participants in the industry are building up large portfolios of patents, portfolios that pose a serious threat to open source development. Therefore, any thorough analysis of the role of patents in the industry must take account of the effects of the current property rights system on all participants. This Article takes up that issue.

In essence, the problem is that open source developers can and often do operate outside of the IP licensing framework that dominates the software industry. Thus, many participants have no patents of their own with which they might protect themselves in IP litigation. At the same time, at least some portions of this community have developed software with little regard for the possibility of patent infringement. Those two practices cannot coexist for long. If the existing legal framework is not abandoned, then the major open source projects must acquire patents of their own or they must rely on the patent portfolios held by those who participate in the proprietary model.

Yet some would say that the potential for high-quality software development through the open source model justifies eradication of software patents for the entire software industry. More formally, one potential cost of permitting ready enforcement of software patents is the disabling of the open source model. At the same time, a sensible policy analysis must consider the entrepreneurs and small firms struggling to find a foothold in the industry. The property rights that patents offer are closely connected with the survival and success of those firms. As a result, we must look more closely at the role property rights play in open source before deciding that the need to free open source from the constraints of patents justifies abandoning them in the industry entirely. Yet it is difficult to analyze that problem definitively in the absence of any objective evidence that would quantify the benefits of open source development or the benefits that the commercial software industry derives from IP.

The problem becomes more difficult when one considers the rapid convergence of commercial and open source licensing models - proprietary companies now often allow access to source code2 and the prominent open source licenses discussed below regularly permit commercial development of proprietary works derived from the covered products. A complete answer must account for the effects of those licenses on the character of financial investment in open source software. For example, the restrictions in common open source licenses might tend to tilt the scales in favor of proprietary investments in service firms rather than products firms. If it is more difficult for startups entering the industry to compete in the services sector than in the products sector, this suggests in turn that the spread of open source software could promote concentration in the software industry.

This Article analyzes the role of patent rights in commercialized open source development models - that is, development models that are part of business models centered on increasing shareholder returns. Section II is a brief description of the landscape of the industry and of the licenses on which open source development depends. Section III considers open source as a challenge to the "one-shop" model of proprietary software development, explaining how and why firms in some cases might profit from collaborative development through open source instead of wholly one-shop proprietary development. Finally, Section IV considers the relationship between open source and the direction and location of innovation in the industry. This Article argues that open source development is more likely to support innovation by larger and better-established firms, where proprietary development is at least relatively more accessible to startup and younger firms.