This past week I had the honor of being invited to the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Leadership Summit (OSLS) at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay (pictured above). The Summit had a packed itinerary, with about 300 other attendees which included founders, executives, open source office program managers, community managers, developers, and a handful of open source attorneys, as well as several open source foundations.
With the Linux Foundation’s announcement of its new CommunityBridge platform at the Summit, much of the conversation at OSLS inevitably shifted towards the monetization of open source software. CommunityBridge allows a Linux Foundation-selected set of developers to raise funding through the platform and offers a number of tools to help open source projects find and fix security vulnerabilities, track their dependencies, and connect mentees with mentors, who are required to offer some number of interview spots to their mentees. In this, CommunityBridge joins other efforts like Open Collective, OpenGift, Gitpay, Patreon, Topcoder, and Bountysource.
What was striking to me about the Linux Foundation announcement was the language used around it such as “helping hand” and “collective responsibility.” The recurring theme was one of charity. In talking about CommunityBridge and its benefits to open source maintainers and contributors, the conversation returned again and again to this idea of developers gaining recognition through the platform and “landing” jobs at Linux Foundation’s consortium of backers like IBM, Google, and VMware.
From a developer perspective, we should support any and all efforts to grow the open source ecosystem and to remunerate the people whose time, knowledge, and effort has provided commercial technology firms with billions of dollars in value. However, I have deep misgivings about a system that has no interest in empowering developers to simply make a living by working on open source software, and instead believes that developers should want nothing more and expect nothing more other than to join giant corporations as salarymen. This is unsatisfying for developers who work on open source software specifically because they don’t want to work for the tech giants, and is a bit of a “the reward for winning the pie eating contest is more pie” scenario. It’s not actual remuneration for past work, it’s an obligation to produce future work – on someone else’s terms.
Even from a corporate perspective, it strikes me that companies have no shortage of means for donating to open source projects. They can and they do when they think they have to (and have sufficient information from which to form that belief) and they have the right personal relationships with the project maintainer(s) and perhaps that community, that they feel like the donation will support something of value. We’re not low on internet payment processors. But companies are generally not all that interested in making payments that don’t come with contractual promises like regular support, timely updates, quick security fixes, clear licensing information, etc.
From a community perspective and a broader view of the future of open source, I see CommunityBridge normalizing and reifying the view that open source software is charity. Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering that one of the first slides the executive director at the Linux Foundation showed was of the open source ecosystem and the circle of life was: create open source software, have corporations consume the software, corporations donate to open source software projects, repeat. As someone who owns her own business, I am perhaps biased, but I would like to think that there is a future for independent developers who create something of value to simply get paid for doing so.
I’d like to see a marketplace where open source developers can get paid for their work and companies can get a full set of services, each exchanging something of equal value. The only effort I know of on this front is Tidelift. I know the open source world has a long tradition of hobbyists and people passionate about making software that the rest of the world can use without restriction, who don’t want to mix money with something they see themselves doing out of love. Maybe we’ll live in a world like that someday, but today, notions of free sharing mostly apply to the taking of open source software and not the giving of profits made off of that software. In the last decade, especially, the goal for both open source projects and businesses alike has been “get big and then we’ll figure out how to make money.” But when you look at companies like Redis and Elastic, it turns out nothing actually changes when you’re big – your open source license is still your open source license and your monetization problem hasn’t gone anywhere because the culture around open source is still mainly one of charity instead of markets, and project maintainers are optional donees instead of critical partners.