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Sustainability of the Open Source

The sustainability of the Open Source was nothing short of an oxymoron. Engineers around the world are pouring their passion and, frankly, their hearts into those passion projects that underpin all software in the modern Internet economy. In exchange, they ask nothing in return, except for recognition and help to keep their projects alive and improve them. It's an incredible movement of decentralized voluntarism that represents humanity at its best.

The giants of the Internet and the computer – the largest users of open source in the world – collectively worth billions of dollars, but you would be wrong to think that their wealth flowed to the managers of Open Source projects. their. Today, maintainers can struggle to find the time to fix critical bugs, while facing endless requests from users asking for free support on GitHub. The depletion of goalies is a monstrous challenge.

This distressing situation was told almost exactly two years ago by Nadia Eghbal, in a historic report on the state of open source published by the Ford Foundation. Comparing the open source infrastructure to "roads and bridges," Eghbal has provided not only a comprehensive overview of open source challenges, but also a call to arms for more users than ever before. Open source to worry about its economy and finally how critical projects can sustain themselves indefinitely.

Two years later, a new generation of entrepreneurs, open source maintainers and organizations took up the challenge of Eghbal, developing solutions that keep the spirit of volunteerism at the heart of the business. Open source while inventing new business models. All are early and their long – term effects on the production and quality of open source are unknown. But each solution offers an avenue that could radically change the way we envision a career in open source in the future.

Eghbal's report, two years ago, summarized the broad issues faced by open source maintainers, challenges that remained essentially unchanged in the meantime. This is a typical example of the "tragedy of the commons". As Edghbal wrote at the time, "Basically, the digital infrastructure has a stowaway problem. Resources are offered for free and everyone (whether a developer or a large software company) uses them, so no one is encouraged to contribute, thinking that someone else will intervene. "This has led to a fragile ecosystem, just as open source software reaches the zenith of its influence.

The challenges, however, go further. It's not just that people are doing free-riding, it's often that they do not even realize it. Software engineers can easily forget how much craftsmanship has gone into the open source code that powers the most basic applications. NPM, the company that manages the module repository for the Node ecosystem, has nearly 700,000 projects listed in its registry. By starting a new React application recently, NPM installed 1105 libraries with my initial project in just a few seconds. What are all these projects?

And more importantly, who are all behind them? This library dependency tree summarizes all the people whose work has made these libraries available and functional in the first place. This black box can make it hard to see that there are far fewer officials working behind the scenes of each of these open source projects than we might expect, and that these officials may have trouble to work on these libraries due to lack of funding.

Eghbal cited OpenSSL as an example, a library that feeds the majority of encrypted communications on the Web. After the release of the security bug Heartbleed, people were surprised to learn that the OpenSSL project was the work of a very small team of people, only one of whom was working full time (and at a very low salary). limited compared to the industry standards).

Such a situation is not unusual. Open source projects often have many contributors, but only a handful of people are actually heading a particular project. Losing this singular force is to burnout or distraction, and a project may be drifting quickly.

No one wants the open source to disappear, or the maintainers to exhaust it. Yet, there is a strong cultural force against commercial interests in the community. Money is corrupt and dampens the voluntary spirit of open source efforts. More pragmatically, the management of money on teams of volunteers distributed on a global scale poses big logistical problems that can logistically complicate the work.

Not surprisingly, the vanguard of open source sustainability sees things very differently. Kyle Mitchell, a licensed lawyer and founder of License Zero, says that there is an assumption that "the Open Source will continue to fall from the sky like the manna of the sky and that people behind it can be abstract He concludes: "It's really wrong. "

This view was taken over by Henry Zhu, who is the maintainer of the popular Babel JavaScript compiler. "We trust startups with millions of VCs and encourage a culture of 'failing fast', but the idea of ​​giving volunteers who may have shown years of dedication is not desirable" , he said.

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Xavier Damman, founder and CEO of Open Collective, states: "In every community, there will always be extremists. I hear and understand them, and in an ideal world, we all have a universal basic income, and I agree with them. Still, the world has not moved towards such an income model, thus supporting the work of open source must be an option. "Not everyone has to raise money for the open source community, but the people who want it should be able to do it and we want to work with them," he said.

Mitchell believes that one of the most important challenges is simply to be comfortable talking about money. "The money is dirty until it is not," he said. "I would like to see more financial responsibilities in the community." One of the challenges it faces is: "Learning to be a great maintainer does not teach you to become a good entrepreneur or open source consultant. GitHub works very well as a filing service code, but ultimately does not teach economists about their work.

Perhaps the biggest debate about maintaining open source is deciding who or what to target: individual contributors – who often move between projects – or a particular library.

Take Feross Aboukhadijeh for example. AbuKhadijeh (who, with full disclosure, was formerly my college buddy at Stanford nearly a decade ago) has become a major force in the open source world, particularly in the Node ecosystem. He was elected to the Board of Directors of the Node.js Foundation and has published 125 GitHub repositories, including popular projects such as WebTorrent (with 17,000 stars) and Standard (18,300 stars).

Aboukhadijeh was looking for a way to spend more time on open source, but did not want to be forced to work on a single project or write a code in a private company that would never see the light of day . He turned to Patreon as a means of subsistence.

(Disclosure: CRV, my former closest employer, is the Series A investor in Patreon, I have no active or passive financial interest in this specific company.) According to my code of deontology, I do not write about the CRV portfolio companies. but since this essay focuses on open source, I made an exception.)

Patreon is a crowdsourced subscription platform, perhaps best known for the creations that it hosts. These days though, it's also increasingly being used by notable open source contributors as a way to connect with fans and support their work. Aboukhadijeh launched his page after seeing others do it. "A lot of people were starting to create Patreons, which was a bit of a meme in my JavaScript circles," he said. His page Patreon today has 72 contributors who provide him with funding of $ 2,874 per month ($ 34,488 per year).

This may sound a bit derisory, but he explained that he also completed his Patreon with funding from organizations as diverse as Brave (an adblocking browser with a utility token template) at PopChest (a decentralized video sharing platform). That brings him a few thousand dollars more per month.

Aboukhadijeh said that Twitter played an inordinate role in building its revenue stream. "Twitter is the most important about how developers talk about things and where conversations happen …", he said. "The people who succeeded on Patreon in the same cohort [as me] who tweeted a lot did really well."

For those who reach it, incomes can be disproportionate. Evan You, who created the popular JavaScript Vue.js front-end library, earned $ 15,206 in monthly revenue ($ 182,472 per year) from 231 customers. The number of customers has increased steadily since the start of its Patreon in March 2016 according to Graphtreon, although profits have increased and decreased over time.

Aboukhadijeh noted that a major advantage was that he had the property on his own funds. "I'm glad I made a Patreon because the money is mine," he said.

Although Patreon is a direct approach to generating revenue from users, another is to offer dual licenses, a free and a commercial one. This is the model of License Zero, which Kyle Mitchell proposed last year. He explained that "License Zero is the answer to a very simple question without simple answers: how can we make open source business models open to individuals?"

Mitchell is a rare breed: a lifetime coder who decided to go to law school. Growing up, he wanted to use software that he had found on the Web, but "if it was not free, I could not download it when I was small," did he? he says. "This has led me to some of the intellectual property issues that have paved the way for the law."

License Zero is a permissive license based on the BSD two-clause license, but adds terms forcing commercial users to pay for a commercial license after 90 days, allowing companies to try a project before they 39; buy. If other licenses are not available for purchase (for example, because a maintainer is no longer involved), then the language is no longer executable and the software is offered as fully open source. The idea is that other open source users can still use the software for free, but for-profit uses would require payment.

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Mitchell believes that it is the right approach for individuals seeking to support their efforts in open source. "The most important is the time-budget – a lot of open source companies or people with an open source project get their money out of services," he said. The problem is that the services are exclusive to a company, and takes the time to make a project as good as possible. "When the time saved is not the time spent in open source, then it is competing with open source," he said.

License Zero is certainly a cultural step away from the notion that open source should be free for all users. Mitchell notes, however, that "businesses pay for the software all the time, and they sometimes pay even when they can get it for free." Companies care about proper licensing, which allows them to generate revenue while retaining the opening and the spirit of openness. source software. It also does not force open source managers to remove critical features – such as a management dashboard or scaling features – to force a sale.

Changing the license of existing projects can be difficult, so the model would probably be better used by new projects. Nevertheless, it offers a potential complement or substitute for Patreon and other subscription platforms for open source contributors to find sustainable ways to engage with the community on a full-time basis while continuing to deceive their heads.

Supporting people makes a lot of sense, but often companies want to support the specific projects and ecosystems that underpin their software. It can be almost impossible. There is a complicated logistics required for companies to fund open source, such as having an organization to send money (and for many, convincing the IRS that the organization is actually a non-profit purpose). Tidelift and Open Collective are two different ways to open these channels.

Tidelift is the invention of four open-source fanatics led by Donald Fischer. Mr. Fischer, who is Chief Executive Officer, is a former venture capital investor at General Catalyst and Greylock, as well as a long-time executive at Red Hat. In his most recent work, Fischer invests in companies at the heart of open source ecosystems, such as Anaconda (which focuses on scientific and statistical computing within Python), Julia Computing (focused on the Julia programming language ), Ionic (multi-platform). mobile development framework), and TypeSafe now Lightbend (which is behind the Scala programming language).

Fischer and his team wanted to create a platform that would allow open source ecosystems to sustain themselves. "We felt frustrated on some level that even though open source has taken over a lot of software, a lot of open source creators have not been able to capture a lot of the value they create, "he says.

Tidelift is designed to offer guarantees "in areas such as security, licensing and software maintenance," Fischer said. The idea has its genesis in Red Hat, which marketed Linux. The idea is that companies are willing to pay for open source when they can receive guarantees on issues such as critical vulnerabilities and long-term support. In addition, Tidelift handles the mundane tasks of setting up open source marketing, such as handling licensing issues.

Fischer sees a mutualism between companies buying Tidelift and the projects with which the startup works. "We are trying to make the open source better for everyone involved, and that includes both creators and users of open source," he said. "We are focusing on solving these problems in the upstream open source project." Companies buy insurance, but not exclusivity, so if a vulnerability is detected, it will be corrected for everyone.

Tidelift initially launched in the JavaScript ecosystem around React, Angular and Vue.js, but will expand to more communities over time. The company raised $ 15 million in venture capital from General Catalyst and Foundry Group, as well as from former Red Hat President and CEO Matthew Szulik.

Fischer hopes that the company can change the economy of open source contributors. He wants the community to go from a "survive and survive" model to a "subsistence level" and instead help big software maintainers to "win big and be financially rewarded for it significantly."

When Tidelift focuses on marketing and software warranties, Open Collective wants to open the monetization of open source itself.

Open Collective is a non-profit platform that provides tools to "collectives" to receive money while providing mechanisms for members of these collectives to spend their money in a democratic and transparent manner.

Take, for example, the open collective Babel. Babel now receives an annual budget of $ 113,061 from contributors. Even more interesting is that everyone can see how the collective spends its money. Babel currently has $ 28,976.82 in her account, and all expenses are listed. For example, Henry Zhu, the primary support we met earlier in this trial, spent $ 427.18 on June 2 for two weeks of Lyft trips to SF and Seattle.

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Xavier Damman, CEO and founder of Open Collective, believes that this radical transparency could reshape the way open source actors are viewed by their participants. Damman compares Open Collective to the "View Source" feature of a web browser that allows users to read the code of a website. "Our goal as a platform is to be as transparent as possible," he said.

Damman was once the founder of Storify. At the time, he built an open source project designed to help journalists accept anonymous tips, which received a grant. The problem was that "I got a grant, and I did not know what to do with the money." He thought of giving it to other open source projects, but "technically, it was Was simply impossible. "Without legal entities or paperwork, the money was just not fungible.

Open Collective is designed to solve these problems. Open Collective itself is a 501 (c) 6 nonprofit, and it technically receives all the funds intended for one of the collectives hosted on its platform as their tax sponsor. This allows the organization to send invoices to companies by providing them with the documentation they need to write a check. "As long as they have an invoice, they are covered," says Damman.

Once a project has money, it is up to the leaders of that community to decide how to spend it. "It's up to each community to set its own rules," Damman said. He notes that open source contributors can often spend money for the kind of uninteresting work that is not normally done, which Damman equated to "paying people to keep the place clean". Nobody wants to clean a public park, but no one does, so no one will ever use the park. He also noted that face-to-face meetings are a popular use of income.

Open Collective was launched at the end of 2015 and since then, 647 open source projects have been created. Until now, Webpack, the most used JavaScript compilation tool, has generated the most revenue, currently standing at $ 317,188 a year. One of the main goals of the non-profit organization is to encourage more for-profit companies to commit funds to open source. Open Collective places the logos of the major donors on each collective page, giving them visible credit for their commitment to open source.

Damman's ultimate dream is to change the notion of property itself. We can go from "competition to collaboration, but also ownership to commons," he envisioned.

Unfortunately, it is very early for the sustainability of open source. While Patreon, License Zero, Tidelift and Open Collective are different approaches to providing the infrastructure for sustainability, ultimately someone has to pay to make all this infrastructure worthwhile. There are only a handful of Patreons that could replace an engineering job, and only two collectives by my Open Collective account that could support even a single full-time maintainer. License Zero and Tidelift are too recent to know how they will work again.

In the end, however, we need to change culture to sustainability. Henry Zhu, of Babel, commented, "The culture of our community should be one that restores and supports community projects with everything they can: with the time of the employees or with the funding. Instead of just adopting the consumption of open source and ignoring the cost, we should take responsibility for its sustainability. "

In some ways, we are just going back to the problem of the original stowaway in the tragedy of the commons – no one, somewhere, has to pay, but all can share the benefits.

The change can however happen through all of us working on the code – every software engineer and product manager. If you work in a for-profit company, take the lead to find a way to support the code that allows you to do your job so effectively. The spirit of decentralization and volunteerism of the open source community needs exactly the same decentralized spirit among all the financial contributors. Sustainability is every one of our jobs, every day. If we all do our part, we can help support one of the great intellectual movements that humanity has ever created and put an end to the oxymoron of sustainability of open source for always.