January 3, 2014

Open Source and Money

David Heinemeier Hansson, a name well-known in the Ruby on Rails world, recently wrote a blog post entitled “The perils of mixing open source and money.” In it he argues that the ability of open source contributors to raise funding through sources like Kickstarter threatens open source, though I find his arguments unpersuasive.

First he suggests that fundraising represents a one-time “cashing in on goodwill earned,” whereas I suspect that if a funded project is successful that would increase the likelihood of receiving funding for future projects and wold actually increase the goodwill directed towards the fundraiser. Second he indirectly suggests that being compensated for writing software will lead to needless embellishment, whereas I should have thought that community pressures in any decent open source developer community would lead to negative code reviews and decisions not to include needless bloat.

Hansson then goes on to suggest that working for community donations causes people to work to keep the donations coming in rather than to improve the software. The fact that many Kickstarter software projects have apparently succeeded appears to make no difference to his opinion. Sadly it seems to me that in closing he reveals that the whole piece is indeed just opinion when he says
It's against this fantastic success of social norms that we should be extraordinary careful before we let market norms corrupt the ecosystem. Like a coral reef, it's more sensitive than you think, and it's how to underestimate the beauty that's unwittingly at stake. Please tread with care.
 Doesn't Hansson know that many people who work in open source do so principally because their employers pay them to do so? And yet their acceptance of the corporate shilling is apparently not in danger of perverting the course of open source development, while people with good ideas that others are prepared to fund apparently don't qualify to receive support because they put the whole ecosystem in danger.

Either I misunderstood something or what Hansson wrote doesn't make sense. The fact of the matter is that the best open source projects don't include contributions because they have been funded, they include them because they are valuable to the project. As long as these values remain in place then the injection of money into open source projects is both desirable and useful.


William Fleming said...

I dont work in open source because of my employer. If anything my employer is against it. I do it in my own time.

William Fleming said...

I don’t work with open source software because of my employer. That is a sweeping generalisation. Yes people are employed to do it, but there is a large community of people who choose to contribute without any financial backing.

Harry said...

I'd like to read his piece as saying "here are things we should watch out for", rather than as saying "let's stop doing Kickstarters altogether". In PM terms, it's a risk register, not a failed business case. With that reading, I think he probably raises some sensible points about danger areas... Although, as you say, there may be an underlying tendency to look on open source with a slightly starry-eyed "no-one does it for the money" when, as you say, lots of people do.

Steve said...

I said "many," not "all". Of course some people work on open source for the love of it - I am one of them. But it would be a mistake to assume that such people are in the majority, and corporations like IBM and Microsoft retain many people specifically to work on open source to achieve their various corporate goals.

PhilK said...

I agree with you - I think he has been too close to one particular model, and he's missing the fact that it's healthy to experiment with new models, and that that those that won't work will fall by the wayside. Working in the traditional F/OSS way and using funding schemes are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps more to the point, he's missing the clue in the name "Kickstarter" - if the problem (or at least a problem) in F/OSS is achieving critical mass for a project to be self-sustaining, it could be just what we need!

galuszkak said...

I don't like idea of many Kickstarter projects, mostly because In my mind that doesn't fit into open source.

But movements like gittip.com, flattr, bountysource.com, paypal donations, helping foundations (like DSF, PSF etc) are much more desirable IMO.
Why? Because one time funding which mostly ends with big amount of cash is not good in long term project perspectives. We should appreciate someone work also if he doesn't have time for marketing and PR stuff like on Kickstarter.

It's also about learning people to be responsible for some open source projects that really needs money (for example for infrastructure). Not every project can be only on github/bitbucket.

anatoly techtonik said...

Well, many people have choose to write open source to share with the world, to chat with people and to have fun. Instead, they've being used by brain-rotten companies with commercial interests. I guess that's the idea behind the ecosystem.