Free labour and the sustainability of open-source software in digital infrastructure

Scholars have long debated the motivations for the ‘free’/unpaid labour of open-source contributors and volunteers. These debates have gained increasing significance as the scale of public benefit of digital infrastructure, built on free and open source code, becomes apparent. Questions about the sustainability of this labour and the communities that support it, the cross-subsidising of unpaid work by commercial interests and the implications for the development and maintenance of open source digital projects and infrastructure have become increasingly pressing. This study seeks to answer the sustainability question by addressing important gaps in how we understand the unpaid labour of open-source contributors. Building on existing research and debates on ‘free’ labour it focuses attention on both the economic underpinnings and divisions of labour that support unpaid work of individuals and the organisational and social location and boundaries of that work. 

The aims of our study are: 

  • To map the diversity of roles and relationships of contributors, projects and organisations in GitHub, an online development platform and repository for open-source software (OSS) projects and code.  
  • To explore the free/unpaid labour of contributors to open source digital infrastructure projects and organisations, the diverse nature of their roles and career trajectories, their navigation of paid and unpaid work, their relationships with employers, projects and OSS communities, and the sustainability of their work in the longer term.  
  • To understand the views of key stakeholders in high profile OSS projects and organisations on the role of unpaid labour in software development and the sustainability of digital infrastructure, open source software and digital communities 
  • To build relationships and networks with open-source contributors and stakeholders to support a large research project bid.  

The project aims to understand the sustainability of the economic and social models of open source software projects (OSS) that support digital infrastructure. We look at the experiences, motivations and priorities of a diverse group of contributors to these projects. It explores their paid employment and careers, how their contributions are supported financially and how they see their contribution in the future.  The project also seeks the views of key industry stakeholders in high profile companies with knowledge and expertise in OSS to understand how they see the role of unpaid labour in OSS and the sustainability of digital infrastructure.

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