Open Source and Crowdsourcing Are Not Synonyms

OSI Board alumnus Simon Phipps recently provided some clarification to FastCo.Design around common misunderstandings related to “sourcing”. We’ve seen more and more of these, although most often–like this example–innocent enough. However, these do provide great opportunities to remind the public about what open source actually is, and why it is so valuable.


The headline (and resulting slug) of your recent article about Mozilla unfortunately mis-states the nature of the crowdsourcing in which they are engaging by treating “open source” interchangeably with crowdsourcing. Despite sounding the same they are very different; the key difference is the ownership of the outcome.

Open source describes a pragmatic projection of the four software freedoms – to use, study, modify and distribute software for any purpose. People synchronise the fragment of their activities which relates to the software in question in a community of others with related fragmentary needs (but without a necessarily related motivation behind it). The community is of equal peers, with no one participant necessarily benefiting more than any other. True open source communities are “open-by-rule” – they have a governance that ensures no single community member can exploit the others. This approach has created the software that runs the current era of business on the web (including FastCompany which uses the open source Nginx web server to deliver pages) and has revolutionised the technology industry since the term was coined in 1998 by the founders of the Open Source Initiative.

Crowdsourcing describes the leveraging of the marginal interest and free time of a large group of people to complete a task that otherwise could not be economically completed. The result typically benefits the initiator hugely, without significantly compensating the participants. It’s one of the examples of crowd behaviour James Surowiecki cites in his very interesting book The Wisdom of Crowds. Participants are crowdsourced donors, gaining no stake in the outcome in return for their effort. This is not to say I think crowdsourcing in general is a bad thing. But it’s not the same thing as open source, where a community comes together for their collective mutual benefit and remain co-equal stakeholders.

– Simon Phipps

Image credit:
Crowdtesting Crowdsourcing,” ©Testbirds GmbH (Own work), 2015, via Wikimedia Commons and used with permission under thethe Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.