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Should Profitable Companies Fund Open Source They Use?

pieohpah profile image JC Updated on ・3 min read

Yesterday, I've stumbled upon this paper "Road and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure" passed to me by a friend that had me thinking hard about how businesses today are profiting from clobbering open-source projects together and very few actually give back to the open-source authors either in contributions or donations, regardless of how much revenue and funding they're making.

It isn't an overstatement to say that many companies run on open-source and others' work than on their proprietary code, which often is there to glue those libraries to work together to form the unique business logic of their service.

I understand when a business fixes a bug in the open-source project it's using and see that as a proprietary advantage and chooses to keep it under the sheet instead of contributing back. Creating a competitive edge is how businesses mostly work. However, donations through Github sponsor and platforms like Patreon are solely optional and unrelated to how much a user earns from the author's work.

I'm not here destroy the open-source core value. I am an open-source author (please check out my project RxGo, now maintained by the marvelous Teiva Harsanyi) and I think everyone has the right to free software and source code. But when you've become a company with $10K a month in revenue, don't you agree it's fair to pay only a small fraction to the hard work someone put into the core library you're using? If it were a SaaS, which is just a bundled software that is opaque to the user, paying for it wouldn't sound out-of-place at all. But somehow software in open code form is expected to be free for everyone, even to a profitable business, just because it's out in the open for everyone to see the source.

"But most high-quality open-source projects come from companies!" I heard a friend objected. He was one of my OSS hero and the reason why I entered open-source. Somehow he thought his projects should remain under MIT License (free for all). The reality is he scraped by for months without a job, and when he got one he became less active in maintaining his projects. Imagine how many developers like him could have contributed to the OSS if he could earn a living just doing nothing but crunching on his awesome work.

Also, his objection was interesting to me because if played out in reverse, it goes like this: "Most independent developers cannot develop high-quality open-source projects because they have no corporate backings!"

Most developers can only go so far to maintain their own projects without a paycheck. I had to hand over my project because I couldn't afford to do it. I've seen many like me that had to abandon or are unable to keep up with the improvement needed to grow the project, but also a few like Sindre Sorhus who had made it into the new arena and set the bar for other OSS developers that one can live on working exclusively on OSS.

I'm curious about what you all Devs think about this? Both from the OSS user's and author's sides. Let's discuss in the comments.

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Discussion

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I think creating a movement around companies giving back to open source is one of the things we can do. This might be part of existing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Discourse does this annually, here’s their 2017 give back.

 

I think open source development should be publicly funded, similarly to grant programs that exist for the arts and for research science.

 

Check out this license prosperitylicense.com/.

I don't disagree, but it is a skewed perspective considering today's companies use open sources to reap profits and hardly give back.

Publicly funded is great if the projects are limited to be used freely for nonprofit or non-commercial purposes.

 

Isn't it already? A majority of good open-source projects are funded either by companies and/or individuals

 

That's different. Fundings are completely optional and not driven by intrinsic value-sharing.