Designing a Participation Architecture: Sponsored vs. Autonomous Open Source Communities

Most research on open source software communities has focused on those that are community founded. Since the first corporate-founded open source project Mozilla launched in 1998, firms have begun to create or sponsor their own open source communities. For example IBM opened up its Eclipse application development platform after investing more than $40 million dollars creating it. How do firm founded open source communities differ from their autonomous counterparts? Assistant Professor Siobhán O’Mahony teamed up with Associate Professor Joel West of San Jose State University’s College of Business to examine this trend. In their paper, “The Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities,” published in the April 2008 issue of Industry and Innovation, O’Mahony and West distinguish a “sponsored” community, created by a firm or government from “autonomous” communities that are managed independent of any one firm. According to O’Mahony and West, autonomous and sponsored communities differ in fundamental ways. In autonomous communities, the community and code grow in parallel. In sponsored communities this is less true. Thus, there may be a learning curve for external participants to become familiar with the code. Sponsors want to profit from their investment in open source communities, while autonomous communities are more interested in improving the code they create and providing that to the public. Sponsored open source communities were more likely to provide their communities with transparency than they were to provide them with accessibility into either code or production processes. Because sponsors still need to maintain control over product development in order to meet corporate objectives, they were less likely to provide external parties with direct access to the code base or with a voice on the project. This affected sponsors ability to attract community participants. The authors found that sponsors face a fundamental tension when building open source communities: the more control they seek to exert over their communities, the less likely communities were to grow. The design of a participation architecture—the sociotechnical framework that extends opportunities to external parties and integrates their contributions—is an essential determinant of growth. The authors identify three facets of a “participation architecture”: governance, organization of production and management of intellectual property that affect the ability of a sponsor to attract external contributors and grow a thriving open source community.