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Web Science Institute

Free Labour and the Sustainability of Open Source Software in Digital Infrastructure


Scholars have long debated the motivations for the ‘free’/unpaid labour of open-source contributors and volunteers. These debates have gained increasing significance as the scale of public benefit of digital infrastructure, built on free and open source code, becomes apparent. Questions about the sustainability of this labour and the communities that support it, the cross-subsidising of unpaid work by commercial interests and the implications for the development and maintenance of open source digital projects and infrastructure have become increasingly pressing. This study seeks to answer the sustainability question by addressing important gaps in how we understand the unpaid labour of open-source contributors. Building on existing research and debates on ‘free’ labour it focuses attention on both the economic underpinnings and divisions of labour that support unpaid work of individuals and the organisational and social location and boundaries of that work.

The aims of our study are:

The project aims to understand the sustainability of the economic and social models of open source software projects (OSS) that support digital infrastructure. We look at the experiences, motivations and priorities of a diverse group of contributors to these projects. It explores their paid employment and careers, how their contributions are supported financially and how they see their contribution in the future.  The project also seeks the views of key industry stakeholders in high profile companies with knowledge and expertise in OSS to understand how they see the role of unpaid labour in OSS and the sustainability of digital infrastructure.

If you would like further information about the study or are interesting in taking part, please contact us via one of the following:


Principal Investigator: Dr Rebecca Taylor

Co-Investigators:  Dr Mark Weal and Dr Anthony Quinn


Application to Digit Innovation Fund Round 2 (2021)
Potential submission to a future ESRC or EPSRC call.

Blog: Open source labour: rewards, motivations, and careers
Abstract for BSA 2022 Conference WEEL stream.
Two potential journal articles

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