The Open Source Funding Conundrum in 2018

Amid the attitude of "open source means no cost," how can open source applications that lack enterprise support pay their bills?


Innovate and Thrive: How to Compete in the API Economy

Posted December 18, 2017

Matt Hartley

Over the years, I've watched first hand as enterprise-centric companies took open source technologies and found ways to make millions (and sometimes many millions) by providing trustworthy support. But what about those open source applications that lack enterprise level financial backing, how are the developers of these applications supposed to pay their bills?

In this article, I'm going to address one of the biggest issues facing those who want to see non-enterprise open source software - funding.

Free as in Freedom

One of the most frustrating things I've seen since broadband Internet became the norm is the idea that if it's open source software then it must be free of charge. The reality that too many FoSS advocates appear to forget is that open source licenses like the GPL actually encourage people to pay the developers of GPL software. So long as the source code of said software is freely available for inspection, download and share if so desired.

There is no restriction stating that you can't sell open source software. The issue is that some fall into the trap that selling open source software is "against the spirit of open source." This is FUD and the idea only serves to hurt open source as a viable means of creating software. It both angers and bewilders me that some individuals still hold onto this nonsense as a smart way forward.

With the negative stuff out of the way, allow me to say the following. Any time someone is putting open source/Free (as in freedom) software into the hands of the masses is a win for humanity as a whole. It means software users are running applications that support software freedom and don't by into the notion of vendor lock in.

Additionally, supporting software that encourages one to examine the source code and if desired, fork it into something even better is a fantastic thing. And keeping those applications alive by ensuring the source code is available to everyone is a critical element that differentiates FoSS from proprietary software.

A question of value

Once we clear away the smoke surrounding the idea of selling open source software, we soon discover the issue of selling software maintained with a FoSS friendly license comes down to perceived value. In other words, why pay for something that we can download and run at no charge. We all do it, none of us are above this.

When we look at LibreOffice, we usually think of this as the freely available office suite. Perhaps Linux users perceive it as something different, however Windows users absolutely label it this way. And these same users are all too happy to use it because it is freely available and offers much of the same functionality found with Microsoft Office.

Now comparing LibreOffice to proprietary alternatives like Microsoft Office, we see office suite users holding onto the belief that MS Office is a better product because it isn't free. And while it's true MS Office does offer some functionality not found with LibreOffice, sometimes the perception of value simply falls upon the idea of one of the products being free of cost while the other is not.

It's at this point of the article we look at what this perception of value does to those who work on FoSS projects to earn money to pay developers. As I've mentioned above, the two issues that prevent many non-enterprise focused FoSS projects are as follows.

  • Selling FoSS for casual users has been largely unsuccessful outside of the enterprise space.
  • Offering something for free affects how it's viewed upon by potential users.

So how do we overcome this issue? Can it safely be suggested that soliciting donation is the best way forward? The truth, sadly, is far darker than one might expect.

Donations aren't sustainable, sponsorships are

The distros that seem best in terms of being able to pay their bills usually have one of two things going in their favor - multiple sponsorships or funding from a company/foundation. And while I would be doing a disservice to indicate that individual donations aren't of value, in truth they are of value. However those individual donations are not even remotely sustainable. Credit card expiration date changes, the donation provider switches to another application, the reasons vary yet the end result remains. Individual funding is the foundation of a FoSS project, yet it's the company/foundation contributions that allows a project to skate through lean periods where individual donation funding is lacking.

This leads me to consider the following: we need a dynamic means of providing sustainable funding for non-enterprise supported FoSS projects. It seems to me that the best approach is to wrangle in those individual donation contributions into one super-fund. Once formed, this super-fund could be made available to those FoSS projects we love and depend on.

In order for this to work effectively, this fund would need to have a means of allowing FoSS projects to apply for funding in addition to a council/administrator to make sure that funding distribution was being distributed fairly. To point out how challenging this task would be seems obvious, yet it's worth mentioning -- this is no easy task.

A FoSS Foundation

Neither the Free Software Foundation (FSF) or the Open Source Initiative (OSI) are really well suited for this task. Their organizational purposes simply don't match up with a funding-only set of goals. And while we might be tempted to point to the FSF as the best organization to handle this type of funding, remember their views on open source vs Free Software make this a non-starter. And the OSI, well, let's just say they're best suited to protect and promote open source as an idea. They're not really setup to handle non-enterprise FoSS software funding. Both the OSI and the FSF solicit their own donations for their own perspective foundations. This issue alone makes either foundation handling the task a non-starter in my mind.

What's needed is the formation of a "FoSS foundation." Ideally, it would be maintained as a collaborative effort between the community and a trusted governing group. If I had to select an entity with a proven, trusted track record, I'd pick the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC). The SFC is well structured, funded and has a solid evaluation team in place to vet incoming FoSS projects.

Before everyone begins submitting applications to have the SFC fund their projects, I think it's important to remind everyone that the SFC is a not-for-profit. That means we need to make sure contributions and funding are coming in along with those new funding requests.

Now for the challenges of such an undertaking. Dumping funds into a single foundation might mean the project you care about doesn't receive as much funding. The clear downside here is that not everyone is going to be onboard with this approach. But I would argue that if enough projects did this in a single collaborative effort, everyone comes out a winner.

Funding Open Source in 2018

So what is the best approach to funding open source projects in 2018? Should we see open source projects holding back packaging for paid users, only releasing source code for free? This is allowed under most open source licenses, but certainly not appealing whatsover. We've all seen how hot and cold private donations can be. Therefore does it not make sense to provide a stronger, more unfied front to ensure projects we care about have enough funding to keep the lights on?

What say you? Are you perfectly happy using the various Libre-based payment solutions out there? Do you perhaps, think it doesn't matter as those who will spend money, already have? Hit the Comments, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Tags: Linux, software developer, Open Source App

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