Open Source Software Development - Just Another Case of Collective Invention?

27 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2004

See all articles by Margit Osterloh

Margit Osterloh

University of Basel; Professor (em.) University of Zurich

Sandra G. Rota

University of Zurich - Institute for Organization and Administrative Science (IOU)

Date Written: March 2004


Does Open Source (OS) represent a new innovation model, and under what conditions can it be employed in other than the software development context? OS is a term for software published under licence that does not give any private intellectual property rights to the developers. They invest private resources in inventions that are then fed into a common pool by contributing to a public good.

A look into history shows that OS isn't a unique example of an innovation model which Allen called 'collective invention' (Allen 1983). In the second half of the nineteenth century iron-making companies in Britain's Cleveland district willingly shared their innovations in blast furnace design (Allen 1983). Other examples include the enhancement of steam engine design after 1800 (Nuvolari 2002) and the search for a dominant design in the flat panel display industry (Spencer 2003).

Even though OS shares many similarities with these other cases of collective invention, there are two major differences. Firstly, collective invention regimes rarely seem to survive after the development of a dominant design (see e.g. Meyer 2002). In OS, this problem is solved with the institutional innovation of OS licences. Rather than just giving up their intellectual property rights, OS developers use these licenses to ensure that their innovations remain common property for all times (O'Mahony 2003).

Secondly, the problem of enforcing the rules of cooperation established in these licenses is solved in a rather informal, decentralised way. Enforcing the rules of cooperation establishes a public good of a second order (Elster 1989). In the Open Source context, the contribution to the second order public good can only be explained by the presence of a sufficient number of norm-based intrinsically motivated contributors who are willing to carry the private costs of rule enforcement. We show that the governance mechanisms used in OS projects are especially well suited not to crowd out this special kind of motivation.

We conclude that OS differentiates itself from other cases of collective invention by its success in solving the second order social dilemma of rule development and enforcement, which depends on institutional as well as motivational factors.

Keywords: open source, collective invention, motivation

Suggested Citation

Osterloh, Margit and Rota, Sandra G., Open Source Software Development - Just Another Case of Collective Invention? (March 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Margit Osterloh

University of Basel ( email )

Petersplatz 1
Basel, CH-4003

Professor (em.) University of Zurich ( email )

Südstrasse 11
Zürich, CH-8008

Sandra G. Rota (Contact Author)

University of Zurich - Institute for Organization and Administrative Science (IOU) ( email )

Plattenstrasse 14
CH-8032 Zurich
0041 (0)1 634 29 39 (Phone)
0041 (0)1 634 49 42 (Fax)

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