How much do I hear for this perl script?

New O'Reilly venture creates an auction scheme for open-source software projects.

By Andrew Leonard

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Open source is going on the auction block. Brian Behlendorf, chief technical
officer for O'Reilly & Associates, announced Friday the debut of Sourcexchange, a for-profit
clearinghouse for open-source software development projects.

Behlendorf, who is also the chief coordinator of the Apache Web
server project, calls Sourcexchange "a marketplace for contract development
for open-source software." The intention, he says, is to provide a place
where corporations or other "sponsors" with specific software needs -- such
as, for example, a driver for a
particular 3D video card -- can contract with open-source developers to get
the job done.

The basic mechanism is simple. A company will make a "request for
proposals" -- "this is what I want done, this is how much I'll pay for it,"
Behlendorf explains -- and then developers will make their bids. Sourcexchange
will broker the deal, ensuring payment, peer review and other services. The
underlying idea, says Behlendorf, is to create a free-market mechanism for
accelerating open-source software development. All code produced via
Sourcexchange contracts will be archived at the site, and protected by open-source licenses.

O'Reilly will officially announce the project at next week's LinuxExpo, and
is billing the project as "the first of its kind for the open-source
community." That's not quite true. Axel Boldt, a math
professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., has been
operating the very similar Free Software Bazaar
for at least six months. But Boldt's clearinghouse is a grass-roots project
in which the typical bid is $50 or $100 for a basic Perl
script. And progress has been slow.

"It's pretty embryonic at this point," says Chris Browne, a software
developer who has placed a bid at the Free Software Bazaar. Browne said one of the Bazaar's problems is getting noticed by a wide enough core of developers to be useful. Another is ensuring that there is enough trust between the people who commission projects and the people who promise to develop them that the work actually gets done -- and, most important, paid for.

That's where O'Reilly will make its presence felt. As Browne notes,
"O'Reilly has a big enough name to sort of blunder through and people will
actually pay attention to it."

Behlendorf says Sourcexchange will have several built-in features to ensure
smooth operation. For example, companies that want to sponsor projects will
have to immediately fork over to Sourcexchange the cash they plan to offer
for successful project completion. Sourcexchange will then hold that cash in
escrow until the project is finished, upon which it will immediately pay the
developer. Behlendorf also described a system in which "peer reviewers" --
well-known developers drawn from the open-source community -- will monitor
the interaction between developers and sponsors.

Last week, Microsoft senior vice president Jim Allchin riled the open-source
community by blurting,
in reference to the Linux operating system, that "the profit motive will end
up ruining and tarnishing the altruism people use to promote this thing."

And, to be sure, O'Reilly plans to run Sourcexchange as a for-profit
enterprise, extracting fees from the companies that wish to be sponsors. But
the ultimate goal, says Behlendorf, is to actually provide a way to
encourage open-source development without getting bogged down in proprietary

"The companies that participate in the open-source exchange are ones that
are creating their own value add in something else. That's where the real
power of open source is," says Behlendorf. "If left to their own devices,
companies will try to find proprietary advantage in the software itself.
This is a countervailing force to that."

Behlendorf says the initial idea for Sourcexchange grew out of a meeting
with Hewlett-Packard in early January.

"That's when the crystallization came," says Behlendorf. "They had a
prototype for a system like this and it was pretty good. But we looked at
it and said, hey, you need an outside partner to do this. It seemed very
interesting to us, because of O'Reilly's position as being somewhat
visionary and wanting to push the boundaries of open source."

No doubt some purists will find reasons to look askance at Sourcexchange --
on the surface, the project might seem pretty far afield from the communitarian fervor that fuels the free software/open-source movement. But Behlendorf's got lots of credibility in the open-source world, and it will be intriguing to watch how his new endeavor plays out.

"Whether this is hugely profitable or not," says Behlendorf, "at the end of
the day I think we will be doing something good for the community."

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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