The Open Source Funding Problem

The world is built on the shoulders of Open Source software. If you look at any tech startup out there, they are more public code than proprietary. Every E-commerce store, every blog, every web and mobile application relies on the public good provided by open source software. We leverage open source as a starting point for new ventures and new innovation. Even large companies — the Googles and Facebooks of the world would not run without that foundation of open source code.

The reliance on Open Source inflates some risks. Bugs in open source come at huge costs due to how widely used it is. The direct costs of a bug or security vulnerability can be massive. For example, the estimated cost to fix the Heartbleed vulnerability in OpenSSL was $500,000,000.

There are indirect costs as well, relying on goodwill of volunteers means you can’t have the best people work on the hardest problems. You can’t always count on timely support. The best projects are under such high demand for fixes and features that the developers risk burnout.

Yet, despite the critical nature of all this code the vast majority of work on open source goes unpaid. Most projects are started out of personal interest — an often fleeting commitment. There is little accountability and in fact as has happened time and time again these developers burnout and abandon popular projects. Were you to do ‘due diligence’ on any of these projects you would find that 30% of the top 133 projects on Github are maintained by a single person, that the next 34% have only 2 contributors. These are at risk of being abandoned quietly or at short notice. Key pieces of supporting infrastructure such as package management services need to be up, but are maintained by people who need to book vacation days from their paying jobs to do so.

Github was launched in 2008 and with it, a new wave of open source developers started to dip their toes into it. These open source boomers are now becoming more senior, they are realising the value of the code they write, and they are starting families that vie for their time and attention. For many of these developers burnout is real and they increasingly need to justify their continued involvement. If we ignore this problem the code we all rely on for a functioning internet could be left to rot.

Not every open source developer will always be motivated by self interest to contribute to and maintain their open source project. As projects mature and the focus turns to less glamorous maintenance tasks we all are at greater risk of valuable public digital infrastructure breaking down.

Money could help. There are not many ways to monetise open source, but money can help all these projects by allowing the developers to justify their time. Projects started 10 years ago by ambitious 20-year-olds are now maintained by 30-year-olds with a young family. If money can help to keep the original and most qualified developer on the project then we are all better off. Also, there are many talented software developers in the world who see the monetary value of the code they write and won’t trade their family time to code for free. For a healthier Open Source community there should be a way to engage these people into contributing.

Google Summer of Code and Mozilla Open Source Support are grant programs that help support many important projects, but their reach is limited and the application process can be daunting. Not all projects qualify.

Open source has a funding problem, one that needs to be addressed. Open source is the foundation of a trillion dollar internet economy, but the developers who build it mostly do so for free.