During a recent presentation in the Open and User Innovation course, some of my friends presented the topic of User Behavior and Free Innovation wherein they discussed ‘What motivates free innovators ?’. Combining my learning from the class and my experience as a Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) contributor, in this blog post I reflect on what motivates software developers to contribute their time and effort to building free software products.


Intrinsic Motivation –

In general, Intrinsic motivation refers to the inherent motivations of doing a task. It’s possible that there are no other outcomes that motivate the ‘free innovator’ other than the satisfaction of being able to complete a task and having fun while doing it.

It can be further divided into the following two categories:

  • Enjoyment Based – Much of open source software contribution is motivated by the satisfaction of being able to ‘fix’ a certain bug with a software and being challenged while doing it. A task that is within the skillset of a programmer but also challenges their creativity provides the most engaging experience.
  • Community/Obligation Based – Larger F/OSS projects have a very strong sense of bonding and community. It’s very common to see the most experienced contributors of a project helping an absolute beginner in getting started with code contributions.

Extrinsic Motivation – 

Extrinsic motivation refers to the external aspirations of a developer other than the aforementioned intrinsic motivations. For example, the immediate need of a bug fix motivates some to contribute to the projects they use. I personally, have fixed bugs in an open source software because I needed to use it in my project.

In addition, developers might have long term motivations such as learning how to code better. Most F/OSS code contributions are reviewed by experienced programmers which helps novice programmers in improving their skills. F/OSS contributions are also a great way to build a strong network in the programming community which could lead to better job opportunities and career advancement in the long run.

From my personal experience of having interacted with a number of F/OSS contributors over the past few years, it’s a mix of these extrinsic and intrinsic motivations that makes F/OSS a very successful Open Innovation model.

A more thorough analysis of this topic backed by data is available here. I would encourage everyone remotely interested in Open and User innovation to go through the article. It explains very clearly the motivations of ‘free innovators’ and the learning can easily be carried over to many more areas in addition to F/OSS.

— Shivam Verma

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24 Thoughts on “Motivations behind Free/Open Source Software

  1. Avatar Isabelle Wilhelm on November 23, 2017 at 10:55 pm said:

    What are your experiences?
    What motivated you and why for realizing a project, participating in a competition, helping someone else,…?

    To what extent does this theory reflect your own motivation?
    Which of those motivation has led you to a better result and why?

    • Avatar shivam_verma on November 28, 2017 at 11:27 am said:

      I contributed to some projects just for the fun of it and to others to get better at programming and to be able to learn from others. For a select few, such as my Google Summer of Code project, I also got paid.

      It’s always a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Personally, having fun while programming is what I value most as compared to the more extrinsic motivations 🙂

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