The Protestant ethic strikes back: Open source developers and the ethic of capitalism
First Monday

The Protestant ethic strikes back: Open source developers and the ethic of capitalism by Teemu Mikkonen, Tere Vaden, and Niklas Vainio

Free/Open Source software development has initiated new models and theories of social organization and immaterial labor in terms of a “hacker” culture. However, our survey of four developer communities shows that there is a continuum of communities from voluntary communities, corresponding to the “hacker” image, to more business-oriented communities deviating from the image. It is particularly noteworthy that old and familiar modes of organization based on waged labor are increasingly a part of developer communities. This may create new dynamics and tensions both inside communities and between the various partners taking part in Free/Open Source software development projects.


Survey of Open Source developers
The communities
Age, education and professionality of developers
Classification model of developer motives
The ideological beliefs of the developers
The roles of developers and the structure of communities
Attitudes toward company participation
Summary and speculative conclusions




“For everyone without exception God’s Providence has prepared a calling, which he should profess and in which he should labor. And this calling is not, as it was for the Lutheran, a fate to which he must submit and which he must make the best of, but God’s commandment to the individual to work for the divine glory ... .” [1]

The open, collaborative and global community of Free/Open Source software (FOSS) developers has provided celebrated examples of distributed labor, puzzling economic behavior and new modes of software distribution. The contrast between these communities and those formed by developers in more traditional proprietary settings inside companies has received increasing attention in both empirical studies and theories of the nature of work in the digital age [2]. Voluntary and self-organized hacker communities have been hailed as germ forms of a new emerging type of work, social organization and value creation. While this picture of FOSS communities is extremely interesting, useful and sometimes accurate, we want to argue here, largely based on a survey conducted on four communities that it should not be taken to cover all FOSS communities. The communities are diverse, with different backgrounds and social structures, and to think about and to interact with them using a one-size-fits-all model easily leads to a myth of “hackerism” that does not always correspond to reality. Indeed, it can be claimed that certain shifts in the nature of the communities can be recognized; shifts that affect maturing communities and communities in close co-operation with companies. While what we call “good old-fashioned hacker communities“ (GOFHC) rely predominantly on self-organized volunteers working for “fun”, communities that mix both volunteers and developers working for a salary as well as communities with almost exclusively non-volunteer developers are emerging. It is clear that the dynamics of GOFHC and mixed communities are quite different, leading, e.g., Fitzgerald (2006) to describe the present stage as “Open Source 2.0”.

Most generally, this shift can be observed on the level of the “ethos” of communities: the ideologically organized ways in which labor is understood, maintained and given meaning. The self-organizing volunteer way of “working for fun” has been dubbed “hacker ethics” by, e.g., Himanen (2001). Himanen wants to explicitly contrast the hacker ethics of GOFHC with the more well-known salary-based “Protestant ethics” that prevails in modern corporations, where a Taylorist division and rationalization of labor takes place based on institutional rules and hierarchies (Himanen, 2001; see also Lash, 2002). The Protestant ethic is a concept from the classical sociologist Max Weber illustrating the work- and money-centered, rather bureaucratic and hierarchical attitude to work. In the quotation above Weber [3] illustrates the main principle of Protestant ethics. Crudely put, Weber claims that a Protestant ethic where individual work is the only way to ascend towards “divine glory” was the main reason why capitalism succeeded in the Western world. It seems to us that one way of characterizing the shift from GOFHC to “Open Source 2.0” is to see this Protestant ethic an influential factor in open source communities. We think that the Protestant ethic, as Max Weber has described it, while ideally absent from GOFHC, is making a return and that capitalism in Weber’s sense is increasingly taking also community based Free/Open software developers under its wings. In other words, the initial goal of the Open Source Initiative has, to a large extent, succeeded in creating for free software a more mainstream and commercially viable form. The interesting sociological question is what effects this success will have for the future of GOFHC, in particular, and communal software development, in general. We will first present some results from a recent survey on FOSS communities, before concluding with some characterizations and hypotheses on the changing nature of ethics in the communities.



Survey of open source developers

We conducted a Web-based survey of four communities (Debian, Gnome, Eclipse and MySQL) in January-February 2006, with ca. 200 respondents answering to questions on demographic details, developer motivations and values, community structure, free/open source software (FOSS) ideology and attitudes toward company participation. In our analysis we used factor analysis and cross tabulation. We have also compared means and medians when it has been appropriate. We’ve been aware about the problems with factor analysis caused by the relatively small sample. This same problem arises also in some cross tabulations when we compare communities to each other. However, our goal is to create some theoretical conclusions and hypotheses rather than to describe these communities and their qualities in exact detail. Even with the small sample we can exclude some theories and classifications and, consequently, support certain theories and classifications.

The overall results of our survey are, in general, similar to those of the much larger FLOSS study (Ghosh, et al., 2002; Lakhani and Wolf, 2005; Ghosh, 2005). More particularly, some of the characteristics of the semi-mythical GOFHC were found to be true. First, most of the developers, 96 percent, are male and 80 percent of the respondents have already completed an academic degree. The percentage of PhDs is remarkable: 12.5 percent. Second, the developers are relatively young, with some differences between the communities (see below). Only a few have children. Third, a great majority, 79 percent, of the developers are located in Europe and in North America. Some geographical dispersion exists, of course, but still the “typical” developer is an academically educated young male in living in the first world. However, when it comes to the motives of the developers, the distinction between hobby and work, and the differences in demographical structures between the four communities, we found that the GOFHC model does not do them justice.



The communities

The communities in our study were Debian, Gnome, Eclipse and MySQL. Debian is a widely used distribution of free software developed through the collaboration of volunteers from around the world run by the Debian Project. The Debian Project is the largest community in our survey. It has a complex organization with three foundational documents: the Debian Social Contract, the Debian Free Software Guidelines and The Debian Constitution. The Project maintains official mailing lists, technical infrastructure and conferences for communication and coordination between developers. The Gnome (originally from the acronym GNU Network Object Model Environment) project is an international effort to create an easy-to-use computing platform built entirely from free software. The Gnome project is loosely organized and the discussion chiefly occurs on a number of public mailing lists. Eclipse, originally developed by IBM, is a free software/open source platform-independent software framework. It is composed by many different projects. Consequently, it is difficult to estimate how many developers are in the overall community. MySQL is a multithreaded, multi-user, SQL Database Management System. MySQL is available both free (GPL) and as proprietary software. The company MySQL AB develops and maintains the system, selling support and service contracts, as well as proprietary-licensed copies of MySQL.Both volunteers and employees of MySQL (the company) participate in development.

FOSS communities have different governance models, motivation structures, sizes, traditions and ideologies. Through an analysis of these aspects, several “ideal types” of communities can be identified (see Table 1). In our survey we could recognize two distinct types of community ideology and work ethic. The hacker ideology is the traditional GOFHC work ethic of freedom, fun and sharing of information, while the opposing ideology is the traditional, salary-based work ethic. These two types of ideologies correspond to certain kind of structures of power and authority. Therefore by “volunteer community” we mean those communities where the hacker work ethic is dominant, and by “company-based communities” we mean the communities where companies and business objectives have more importance and a majority of developers are paid for their contribution. Some of the major differences in the characteristics of these communities, and some other communities added to illustrate the field further, can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1: Communities and their frequencies in our survey
  Frequency Percent
Valid Debian 86 43.9
Eclipse 46 23.5
Gnome 50 25.5
MySQL 14 7.1
Total 196 100.0



Age, education and professionality of developers

One interesting difference between the communities is the age of developers. Developers are youngest in Debian and in Gnome; the mean age is almost ten years lower in Debian and Gnome than in Eclipse and MySQL (see Table 2). Also the minimum ages are lower in Debian and Gnome.

Table 2: Mean, minimum and maximum ages in chosen communities
  Count Mean Standard deviation Minimum Maximum
Debian age 86 29 8 17 68
Eclipse age 46 38 10 25 70
Gnome age 50 27 5 18 52
MySQL 14 39 11 26 56

The difference in the ages of developers in the communities reflects, we believe, the fact that Eclipse and MySQL are more business-oriented communities, somewhat deviating from the “for fun” ideal of GOFHC. This belief is corroborated when we look at the income of developers. One of the questions in the survey was “How your work with FOSS is related to your income?” In Table 3 we can see that in Debian and Gnome there are more voluntary workers (hobbyists, students) than in Eclipse and MySQL. Conversely, in Eclipse and MySQL there are more workers who get their main income from FOSS.

Table 3: FOSS-related salary in chosen communities
  Debian Eclipse Gnome MySQL
How is your work with FOSS related to your income? FOSS is my main job and I get most of my salary from FOSS. 2 30 4 12
  2.9% 65.2% 8.5% 85.7%
  I am an owner of a company that is related to FOSS. 1 4 0 0
  1.5% 8.7% 0% 0%
  FOSS is my hobby. 53 0 30 1
  77.9% 0% 63.8% 7.1%
  Work with FOSS is related to my studies. 4 2 3 0
  5.9% 4.3% 6.4% 0%
  I work with FOSS but it’s not my main job. 5 10 7 1
  7.4% 21.7% 14.9% 7.1%
  None of the above. 3 0 3 0
  4.4% 0% 6.4% 0%
Total 68 46 47 14
  100% 100% 100% 100%

Remarkably, a clear majority of Eclipse developers get most of their income from working on Eclipse; a whopping 65.2 percent of Eclipse developers are directly earning by working on FOSS (in the case of MySQL the 85.7 percent is even higher, but given the small number of respondents, the number needs to be taken with a grain of salt). Even in the case of Gnome, 8.5 percent of the respondents are actually working on FOSS. The picture of predominantly voluntary GOFHC does not fit Eclipse or MySQL at all, and Gnome and even Debian only partly. This is maybe most striking in the case of Debian, where 11.8 percent of the respondents are in one way or another working and getting paid for working on the system. Debian, after all, is the paradigm case of a freedom-oriented software project. The results of our study support the presuppositions that Debian and Gnome are more voluntary based and “non-professional” communities than Eclipse and MySQL. This illustrates the diversity of FOSS communities. Loosely speaking: Debian and Gnome correspond better with GOFHC ideal, while Eclipse and MySQL have a more serious business profile, with older and presumably more income-oriented developers.



Classification model of developer motives

In previous literature, two models for classifying developer motivations can be found. A popular classification is the division into intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, synthesized in e.g. Rossi (2004) based on different studies on FOSS developers. However, the factor analysis of our data did not support this model. In our study, we found the classification of Aalbers (2004) more illustrative. In Aalbers’ study, developer motivations are classified into groups of self-enriching, group-enriching and knowledge-enriching (see also Vainio and Vadén 2006). We also think that it is more useful to think about developer motivations on the basis of their consequences than on the basis of their origin or essence. In the intrinsic/extrinsic classification respondents are assumed to bear some stable qualities (intrinsic) or that there are some factors in the environment that have an influence as motives (extrinsic). In contrast, in the classification introduced by Aalbers and corroborated by our data, it is not the claim that developers have some intrinsic or extrinsic qualities. Rather, we think that there are social possibilities that support or “enrich” behaviors like selfishness, sociability or awareness. So, following Aalbers we classify these motivations as self-enriching, group-enriching and knowledge-enriching motivations.

In our classification, “self-enriching” motives are motives that can be interpreted to reward the individual’s hopes and volitions. Group-enriching motives could be interpreted as volitions and hopes that keep people in groups together. These motives are also related to norms and rules that regulate the sanctions and rewards for behaviors in the group. The third classification is knowledge-enriching motives that could be interpreted as motives to gain knowledge and learn both collectively and individually. The following figure is adopted from Aalbers (2004):

Figure 1. Motives by Aalbers (2004)

Figure 1: Motives by Aalbers (2004)

In our classification the structure is slightly modified. We think, like Aalbers (2004), that “enjoyment” can be thought to be a group-enriching motivation rather than a self-enriching motivation (contra Rossi 2004. The difference to Aalbers’ classification is that we think that reputation, when it is understood as a reward from the group, is group-enriching. This kind of reputation can also be called respect. When reputation is understood as “capital” gathered in order to improve future opportunities, it is a self-enriching motive. The following picture (Figure 2) illustrates the difference between our and Aalbers’ classification:

Figure 2. Motives in our

Figure 2: Motives in our classification

In our classification model the different motivational factors are seen to increase information (knowledge), social (group) or individual (self) value. If an open source developer participates in software development in order to get a better reputation in the community, he also gains “togetherness” as social capital. If he develops software in order to get better skills for the skills’ own sake, he participates in order to gain knowledge. If he develops in order to get better skills in order to get, for example, better jobs in the future, he develops to improve his individual capital. In our classification reputation is seen as a social phenomenon and personal skills are seen as related to increased knowledge rather than individual capital. The hopes of future opportunities falling under self-enriching motives are of course related to personal improvements, but relate to the other groups of motives, as well.

These groups of motives are distributed in different ways in the four communities. In Debian self-enriching motives got most disagreement and in Eclipse and MySQL self-enriching motives got most agreement. Group-enriching motives got most agreement in Debian and Gnome, but were not so popular in Eclipse and MySQL. Knowledge-enriching motives got most agreement in Debian, but were quite popular in all groups.

Table 4: Median of groups of motives in different communities
(1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree).
  Count Median Standard deviation
Debian Self-enriching 86 2.67 0.65
  Group-enriching 86 4.00 0.50
  Knowledge-enriching 86 4.50 0.53
Eclipse Self-enriching 46 3.33 0.71
  Group-enriching 46 3.63 0.59
  Knowledge-enriching 46 4.00 0.55
Gnome Self-enriching 50 3.00 0.64
  Group-enriching 50 3.88 0.52
  Knowledge-enriching 50 4.00 0.54
MySQL Self-enriching 14 3.33 0.70
  Group-enriching 14 3.63 0.62
  Knowledge-enriching 14 4.00 0.39

These results corroborate the idea of Debian and Gnome as more like the GOFHC ideal, and Eclipse and MySQL further removed from it.



The ideological beliefs of the developers

In the survey we asked from the developers agreement to claims related to “ideological” questions like software freedom, copyright, patents, digital rights management (DRM) and others. Consequently, through a factor analysis, a factor that we call the “ideology factor” was found. This factor refers to values that are shared usually among “politically aware hackers”. By calling this factor “ideological” we are not claiming that there is only one kind of ideology amongst FOSS developers; we choose the name as a convenient way of characterizing the presence of awareness and adherence to the traditional spirit of GOFHC. Our hypothesis was that the “ideological” questions would polarize software developers. The factor analysis of the data supported the hypothesis. The ideological factor measures agreement to the following claims:

  • Software methods shouldn’t be patentable
  • Copyright term for software should be significantly shorter than in current law
  • Every user should be free to use, modify and redistribute the software they use
  • Copyright gives companies power to exploit people

When we compare the parameters of the ideological factor in the communities, differences are found. In Debian and in Gnome the median value is higher than in Eclipse and MySQL. This means that there is more agreement on the above questions in Debian and Gnome than in Eclipse and MySQL.

Table 5: The median of the “ideological factor” in different communities
(1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree).
  Count Median Standard deviation
Debian 86 4.00 4.00 0.56
Eclipse 46 3.25 3.10 0.86
Gnome 50 3.75 3.79 0.69
MySQL 14 3.50 3.43 0.58

Not surprisingly, developers in Debian and Gnome adhere more closely to the ideological values of GOFHC. One reason for the difference is clearly the different character of these communities, as reflected, for instance, in the different structure with regard to age. Also the fact of how FOSS development is related to developers’ income tells us something about the structure of the community.



The roles of developers and the structure of communities

A widely used model for depicting the roles of FOSS developers is the so-called onion model (see Nakakoji, et al., 2002; Ye and Kishida, 2003). At the heart of a FOSS community is sometimes a single person, the project leader, who is one of the most active developers. There is also often a group of core members that coordinate the project and have been involved with it for a long time and have contributed much code. Active developers regularly contribute new features and fix bugs, while peripheral developers contribute only occasionally. Bug fixers and bug reporters are mainly involved in debugging. Readers are active users of the system. They try to understand how the software works but don’t contribute. Passive users are the largest group. These roles are not static. A passive user may at one point become a reader, and a bug reporter may at one point try to fix the bug herself and become a bug fixer.

Figure 3. The onion model of the roles of the community

Figure 3: The onion model of the roles of the community

In our survey we used this model in our questions but it was challenged by the answers. As seen in the following table, the community is understood as multi-centered networks rather than a hierarchical developer community with a definite center. In all communities (except in MySQL where the sample was very small) there are many developers that understand themselves as leaders. We realized that all FOSS communities cannot be adequately described as a hierarchy of software developers (project leader, developers, bug fixers), and that for example in Debian the role of package maintainer is very important. Also the roles of translator, document writer and similar were missing from our survey. Therefore especially the Debian respondents may have had trouble answering the question about community roles.

Table 6: Roles in communities
  Debian Eclipse Gnome MySQL
Roles in community project leader 2 9 5 1
  2.4% 20.5% 10.2% 7.1%
  core member 2 17 12 4
  2.4% 38.6% 24.5% 28.6%
  active developer 37 14 12 3
  44.6% 31.8% 24.5% 21.4%
  peripheral developer 28 3 10 2
  33.7% 6.8% 20.4% 14.3%
  bug fixer 8 0 2 1
  9.6% 0% 4.1% 7.1%
  bug reporter 4 1 5 2
  4.8% 2.3% 10.2% 14.3%
  reader 2 0 1 1
  2.4% 0% 2.0% 7.1%
  passive user 0 0 2 0
  0% 0% 4.1% 0%
Total 83 44 49 14
  100% 100% 100% 100%

The difference between communities is that in Eclipse and MySQL, there are more core members than in Debian and Gnome. In Debian and Gnome the most of the developers think that they are active or peripheral developers. Because our sample was so small, we can’t say for sure that this is a truthful description of the community structure. Especially in the case of Eclipse, which really is a bundle of projects, the proliferation of leader roles is to be expected. If there really were more core members in Eclipse and MySQL, we could speculate that when the community is more ideological (as we understand it) or voluntary, it is more hierarchical than when it is “salary-based”. It could be expected that in voluntary based communities there are more less-active developers than in the salary based communities and in salary-based FOSS communities there are more active developers than in ideological communities.



Attitudes toward company participation

Three different factors describe respondents’ attitudes toward company participation in FOSS communities. These factors were positive attitudes, conditional attitudes and negative attitudes toward company participation. Positive attitude toward company participation is the factor that could be seen behind the answers on the following questions. If respondents generally see company participation in the community as a positive thing, these claims will usually be agreed on:

  • It’s good that private companies give support to (e.g. money) to FOSS projects
  • When companies give money, they should give it for a specific task
  • Companies should employ in-house developers to FOSS projects
  • Opening or donating code of proprietary software is a beneficial way for a company to support FOSS

Interestingly, in all communities with their different ideological and structural qualities, the attitudes to company participation were relatively high. In the following table the factor that measures positive attitudes toward company participation has high values in all communities.

Table 7: Positive attitudes toward company participation in different communities
(1=disagree, 3=agree).
  Debian Eclipse Gnome MySQL
Positive to company participation 1.00 2 0 0 0
  2.4% 0% 0% 0%
  2.00 0 1 0 1
  0% 2.3% 0% 7.1%
  3.00 83 45 50 13
  97.6% 97.8% 100% 92.9%
Total 85 46 50 14
  100% 100% 100% 100%

When the medians of the positive attitudes toward company participation are compared, the same phenomenon can be seen, but there are also some differences. In Eclipse and Gnome the median seems to be a bit higher than in Debian and MySQL.

Table 8: The median of positive attitudes toward company participation in chosen communities
(1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree).
  Count Median Standard deviation
Debian 86 4.00 4.18 0.51
Eclipse 46 4.50 4.35 0.55
Gnome 50 4.25 4.24 0.49
MySQL 14 4.00 4.04 0.54

The overall result is that in all communities positive attitudes are relatively high and the ideological or structural differences do not have strong consequences in these communities, contrary to what one might have expected.



Summary and speculative conclusions

In many communities the amount of developers who develop in terms of “work” rather than in terms of “hobby” is considerable. Their presence may be guessed to contribute to the diminished awareness or agreement to the ideology of GOFHC. In company-based communities traditional hacker values of freedom and sharing have much less importance and participants may not be interested in issues like copyright, software freedom or software patents. On the other hand, company-based or mixed communities may be easier to govern and motivate, as they may be expected to respond more predictably to the traditional rewards of Protestant ethics. This trend is accompanied by another, connected development. Several, if not all, FOSS communities are becoming interested or already involved in collaboration with companies. One can also guess that often the career of a FOSS developer starts as a hobby during the student years, and with age and possibly a family, turns more professional and salary-oriented. No seriously anti-capitalist or anti-corporatist sentiments are visible in the communities. The Protestant ethic is not disappearing; rather, it is striking back inside FOSS communities themselves.

If FOSS communities are seen as heralds of something new or even revolutionary, the trend of increasing Protestant ethics and diminishing hacker ethics may seem negative. Indeed, Weber [4] himself perceived a possible problem in leveling of skills and personality associated with the Protestant ethic: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” One may, for instance, speculate on how the amount of innovation in FOSS communities will develop in the transition from GOFHC to OS 2.0. Be that as it may, it is clearly advisable to i) be aware of the differences between communities and ii) pay attention to the change over time in particular communities and the FOSS scene more generally. End of article


About the authors

Teemu Mikkonen is a researcher in the Open Source Research Group in the Hypermedialaboratory in University of Tampere, Finland. He is studying the motivations and social structures of Open Source and Open Media communities.
E-mail: teemu [dot] mikkonen [at] uta [dot] fi

Tere Vadén works as Assistant Professor in the Hypermedialaboratory. He is the director of the Open Source Research Group and has published articles on, e.g., the ethics of information society.
E-mail: tere [dot] vaden [at] uta [dot] fi

Niklas Vainio is a researcher in the Open Source Research Group in the Hypermedialaboratory. His special interests are the philosophy and history of Free Software.
E-mail: niklas [dot] vainio [at] uta [dot] fi



1. “Denn für jeden ohne Unterschied hält Gottes Vorsehung einen Beruf (calling) bereit, den er erkennen und in dem er arbeiten soll, und dieser Beruf ist nicht wie im Luthertum eine Schickung, in die man sich zu fügen und mit der man sich zu bescheiden hat, sondern ein Befehl Gottes an den einzelnen, zu seiner Ehre zu wirken.” — Weber (1904/1905, p. 172).

2. For empirical studies see, e.g., Ghosh, et al. (2002), Amor-Iglesias, et al. (2005), Crowston and Howison (2005), Hars and Ou (2001) and for interesting sociological and philosophical theory, e.g., Himanen (2001), Hardt and Negri (2004), Lash (2002), Lessig (2004), Merten (2000), Raymond (1999), and Zizek (2004).

3. Weber, 1990, p. 118.

4. Weber, 1990, p. 135.



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Editorial history

Paper received 16 November 2006; accepted 10 January 2007.

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The Protestant ethic strikes back: Open source developers and the ethic of capitalism by Teemu Mikkonen, Tere Vadén, and Niklas Vainio
First Monday, Volume 12, Number 2 — 5 February 2007

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