Unpaid work and the case of open source labour

23 August 2023

Over the last decade, unpaid work has become increasingly prominent in debates about work and employment.

Our research with Digit, explores a distinct form of unpaid work – the development of open source software and code.  But why is unpaid work important?  And how can a study of open source labour deepen our understanding of unpaid work in today’s economy?

Unpaid work in the digital age

While it isn’t a new mode of work (unwaged labour is as old as waged labour), unpaid work has become increasingly visible in contemporary academic debates. We see it threaded through research on creative, digital and knowledge industries, the platform economy, and service work.

Its increasing visibility also comes from a wider recognition that traditional, ‘standard’ employment is no longer the only model through which to understand either global capitalism or working lives (if it ever was). Unpaid work draws attention to the existence of blurred boundaries (between modes, location and relations), unequal divisions of labour and the resourcing of production and reproduction.

Unpaid work also takes different forms, defined by particular social or occupational contexts, some of which are familiar: volunteering, interning, the runner on a film set. Other forms are newly emergent, particularly those involving digital labour. Platform work, for example, often has unpaid components: travel and waiting time, profile administration, bid preparation and dispute resolution. Workers are not remunerated for all of the work they do, or all of the time they spend working, amounting in some cases to ‘wage theft’.

Open-source labour as unpaid work

Open source (OS) labour—the work of developing and maintaining open source software— provides another interesting case study. It has been around since the 1950s, when software emerged as a core component of the growing information technology industry. Whilst commercial companies, such as Microsoft, developed proprietary forms of software to sell to customers (with closely guarded source code), open source projects did the opposite.

Developers in online communities building Linux, Firefox and other software, worked on publicly accessible source code. Anyone could contribute to and develop the software, modify it, fix bugs and extend functionality. Different labour relations formed. In the proprietary field, developers of software were employees of tech corporations paid lucrative salaries for their development work. In the open source field, developers were volunteers (sometimes corporate developers by day) and university researchers. They were not directly paid for their work on OS projects but were working in their spare time or as part of their research.

Commercial technologies rely on the unpaid labour of open source development

The largely uncommercial character and community locus of open source products and labour did not, however, render it a technological backwater. Quite the opposite.

What has become increasingly apparent over the last decade, is the extent to which open source software is propping up our digital infrastructure, including that produced by global commercial technology companies.

The embeddedness of open source products in digital infrastructure means the commercial and community fields of technology production are intertwined and cannot be studied in isolation. This creates some knotty problems for research to unpick when it aims to understand open source labour. What are the boundaries between paid and unpaid forms and sites? How is it resourced? Who is doing the work, and how?

At Southampton, our interdisciplinary research is focused on two strands. First, we have explored the working lives of OS contributors; how they patchwork formal employment, freelance gigs, unpaid sidelines and domestic responsibilities to construct a career. These patchworks highlight how OS labour is always intertwined with other forms of labour, how it is institutionalised in occupational structures and career trajectories, and how it is resourced not only by waged labour but by education support and state benefits.

The second strand, funded by Digit, focuses on the organisational location of open source labour, how that work takes place within and beyond boundaries between commercial, public and community spaces. Interviews have been conducted with 20 software developers in senior roles in a range of organisations from global technology companies to English local authorities. They explored how their open source work is structured by the organisation, how it is resourced and managed in relation to particular organisational priorities and business models, and how it spans boundaries between formal organisations and open source communities.

With fieldwork almost complete we are about to start on analysis and will be reporting our findings here very soon. Do get in touch if you have any questions.

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