Do You Work Better If You're Working For Free?

After we finish the next issue of Release 2.0, we’ll be turning our attention to a series of open source reports, the first of which we’ll be unveiling at OSCON. Another project I’m working on — one outside O’Reilly Radar that has nothing to do with technology — makes me wonder about how different groups consider open source projects.

I recently finished producing a two-CD set that benefits several charities. All the performers on the set — there were 36 of ’em — worked for free. The fellow who painted the cover image and the guy who designed the package worked for free. The record company is putting it out without expectation of making a dime. For most of us, it’s simply a cool project. All the performers and visual artists, because they believed in the project, were at the top of their game here.

But when we moved into the “professional” realm, working with people who were getting paid and performing their tasks as part of their everyday business, we met many more problems. The printing company kept getting the fonts in the booklet wrong (it took six go-rounds to get it right); an engineer input one song at the wrong sampling rate, forcing us to remaster one of the discs at the eleventh hour.

All these problems were solved and I am quite happy with the finished project. But I wonder if it’s just coincidence that all the people on the project who worked for free did their work flawlessly and we only met trouble when we worked with people for whom this was just another gig. It’s dangerous to extrapolate from one idiosyncratic example, so I’d like to end with a question: When you’ve undertaken open source projects with different groups of contributors, have you encountered anything similar? Do people work better when they’re working for free?