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Open Source. But Not Open Contributions.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Midjourney Prompt: “people shopping in a lively bazaar, cathedral towering in the background”

I came across a really interesting piece on GitHub README about the realities of open source projects.

If someone says “open source project” to you, you probably think of developers collaborating on GitHub.  A group of people leads the project, pull requests come in and are merged, and the project benefits from the “many hands” style of bazaar development.

Turns out the alternative – the Cathedral – is preferred by many open source projects.

Cathedral?  Bazaar?  The terms come from Eric S. Raymond’s 1997 book on software development.  He contrasted two models:

  • the Cathedral, where source code is available with each release, but between releases it’s worked on by a small, exclusive group
  • the Bazaar, where current source code is always available

Both of these are true open source development.  It’s just a question of how many cooks are let into the kitchen.  While the Bazaar model has been wildly successful – the Linux kernel, BSD projects, etc. – smaller projects sometimes suffer under it.

Why?  The overhead.  Here’s a quote from Ben Johnson, the author of BoltDB:

“…I found that accepting and maintaining third-party patches contributed to my burn out and eventual archival of the project,” he wrote. “Even small contributions typically required hours of my time to properly test and validate them. I am grateful for community involvement and when folks report bugs or suggest features. I do not wish to come off as anything but welcoming, however, I’ve made the decision to keep this project closed to contribution for my own mental health and long-term viability of the project.”

The more people you involve, the more time is consuming doing:

  • patch or feature validation
  • test cases for the patch
  • talking with people
  • arguing with people
  • explaining why feature X was rejected by Y was accepted
  • updating documentation
  • updating tutorials

…etcetera.  There’s a lot more good stuff in the article, so if you’re interested in software development or open source projects, it’s worth a read.


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