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What the Future May Hold
Given its profound benefits, it is interesting to speculate on how the open-source model might evolve. Many believe that the model can spread to other industries. An obvious possibility is publishing; several interesting experiments are under way, including Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia that lets anyone contribute articles or edit existing articles (see “Larry Sanger”s Knowledge Free-for-All,” January 2005). Another is the Public Library of Science, which provides free refereed scientific journals on the Web that visitors can reproduce or use to make derivative works, provided they credit the original authors. This scheme bypasses the huge, expensive (and phenomenally profitable) proprietary technical publishing industry. Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are also considered to be fertile areas for open-source experimentation.

Finally, one wonders whether the best features of open source could be combined with the advantages of the proprietary model. One possibility would be to add mechanisms for compensating independent open-source developers. There are interesting precedents. For example, in the music industry, members of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers receive compensation whenever their work is performed in public or played on the radio or television. Similar compensation rights could be built into open-source code without causing the lock-in problems associated with proprietary software. Vendors and users could choose whether or not to accept code that required compensation; they could rewrite expensive code and replace it; compensation rights could be negotiated, including the possibility of automatically terminating them after a period of time.

Whether this happens or not, there seems little doubt that further evolution will occur. Steve Weber, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the open-source industry extensively and consults with IBM and other companies, says, “The model is still very young. There”s no doubt that the model will evolve along with the technology and the industry.” Its achievements are already impressive, both socially and technologically.

Creators, unite; you have nothing to lose but your suits.

Charles Ferguson has a PhD in political science from MIT, where he also completed postdoctoral work and where he will be a visiting scholar this fall. He is the founder and former CEO of Vermeer Technologies, which he sold to Microsoft for $133 million in 1996. Ferguson still holds a substantial quantity of Microsoft stock, a position that is partially but not completely hedged. He also holds a smaller quantity of Red Hat stock, a position that is similarly partially hedged. He has no other financial interest relevant to this article.

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