Autonomous vs Sponsored Open Source Community

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West and O’Mahony:

“We define an autonomous open source community as one that is presently independent of any one firm and community managed (cf. O’Mahony, 2007). A community-managed governance system operates outside the reach of authority embedded in employment relations. Contributors to an open source project may be volunteers or may be paid by their employers to work on the project, but decision-making on the project takes place independently from the employment structure that guides the workplace. These projects may be supported by a non-profit foundation created specifically to support the project, but such foundations have little authority over their members (O’Mahony, 2005).

A sponsored open source community is one where one (or more) corporate entities control the community’s short- or long-term activities. To refine these distinctions, in thus study, we examine how sponsors approached the task of building an open source community and how these communities differed from their autonomous counterparts.” (


The tension between control and Openness

West and O’Mahony:

“One key difference between autonomous (community managed) and sponsored open source software projects is that the sponsors of open source projects faced a fundamental tension between two conflicting goals. On the one hand, sponsoring an open source project was intended to advance the goals of the sponsoring organization. Sponsoring an open source project required significant investment in preparing the code, hosting the site, providing introductory materials and marketing the new opportunity. As such, community sponsors sought to maintain some degree of control over the project to assure ongoing alignment between their investment in the community and related product goals.

On the other hand, the provision of source code under an open source license was an inherently open approach intended to win greater external participation and technological adoption. In some cases, sponsors sought adoption from prospective users (cf. West, 2003); in other cases, they sought adoption from producers of complementary products or even direct competitors.

We found that for the most open communities, the participation of external parties provided sponsors with both direct benefits (such as code contributions and bug reports from participants) and indirect benefits (such as marketing and adoption benefits from their open approach). For the most closed communities, sponsors thought that the primary benefit they received from creating an open source community was not from direct community contributions, but instead from increased public awareness, accelerated low cost distribution, and reduced costs of marketing.” (

Different approaches to community governance

West and O’Mahony:

“Autonomous open source software communities have received a great deal of empirical and scholarly attention within the last decade. However, there has been very little research on corporate sponsored open source communities, on how they differ from autonomous ones, or on how such communities contribute to a firm’s open innovation strategy. This research takes a first step towards answering these questions. By comparing sponsored communities and autonomous communities we found some important commonalities. Both offer access to code that is guaranteed by an open source license, which fits the definition set by the Open Source Initiative. Both also offer a high degree of transparency of access to that code — without which the rights to use the code would be useless.

However, our study showed that sponsored open source software communities are fundamentally different from autonomous communities in the potential for goal conflict between sponsor and community members. Although both sponsors and members seek widespread adoption, the primary goal of a corporate sponsor is profiting from its investment, while the goal of an open source community would be improving the capabilities of the shared technology.

To gain interest from a community of contributors, sponsors needed to at least provide transparency. The openness of sponsored communities differed most in terms of accessibility, with most sponsors retaining a privileged (monolithic) rights for some portion of the community’s decisions. In a few open cases, the sponsor shared some control with the community — and when sponsors relinquished more control to the community, those sponsored communities were transformed into autonomous ones.

As consequence, we also found a dramatic difference between most sponsored and autonomous communities in terms of design decision related to accessibility, particularly in terms of governance. Governance of autonomous projects was largely pluralistic, shared widely among community members, whereas the ultimate decisions of sponsored communities were (with rare exceptions) controlled by the sponsor.

The dichotomy is not complete, because not all autonomous open source projects provide full accessibility. Raymond’s (1999) stylized typology of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” contrasts the tightly-controlled BSD projects with the more open Linux. However, today the “cathedral” archetype is relatively rare: Raymond’s criticism (and the success of Linux) have meant that successful autonomous projects have largely followed Linux in granting accessibility to potential contributors. However, as a practical matter the importance of community contributions constrains the accessibility decisions of autonomous communities more than sponsored ones: independent communities that don’t attract contributions will have trouble producing new software, while sponsors can (and do) sustain communities with their own resources — as happened with MySQL and Berkeley DB in our sample.” (


Article: The Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities. By Joel West (San Jose State University College of Business) and Siobhán O’Mahony (UC Davis Graduate School of Management)

February 6, 2008 preprint version of Industry and Innovation, Special Issue on “Managing Open Innovation Through Online Communities


More Information

Dahlander, Linus., Magnusson, Mats G., 2005, “Relationships between open source software companies and communities: observations from Nordic firms,” Research Policy, 34 (4), 481-493.

See also:

  1. Autonomous Open Source Community
  2. Sponsored Open Source Community