Tragedy of the FOSS commons? Investigating the institutional designs of free/libre and open source software projects

Publication Date



Schweik, C.M. and English, R. 2007. "Conceptualizing the Institutional Designs of Free/Libre and Open Source Software Projects." First Monday 12(2). Available at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1619


Free/Libre and Open Source Software projects (FOSS) are a form of Internet-based commons. Since 1968, when Garrett Hardin published his famous article “Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science, there has been significant interest in understanding how to manage commons appropriately, particularly in environmental fields. An important distinction between natural resource commons and FOSS commons is that the “tragedy” to be avoided in natural resources is over-harvesting and the potential destruction of the resource. In FOSS commons the “tragedy” to be avoided is project abandonment and a “dead” project. Institutions – defined as informal norms, more formalized rules, and governance structures – are mechanisms that have been shown to help overcome tragedies in some environmental commons situations. The goal of this paper is to more formally describe the concept of FOSS institutions and to conduct a preliminary examination of FOSS projects in order to shed light into institutions, their composition and importance to the projects. We report findings from an initial set of interviews of FOSS developers and find that in commons settings that need to encourage contribution rather than control over-appropriation, the institutional designs appear to be extremely lean and as unobtrusive as possible. To the FOSS programmers we interviewed, institutional structure adds transaction costs and hinders collective action. This is markedly different from traditional environmental commons settings.