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Paying the maintainers: not just how, but why

Donald Fischer
by Donald Fischer
on March 12, 2019

This afternoon at the annual Open Source Leadership Summit, the Linux Foundation announced an initiative called CommunityBridge, “a new platform created to empower open source developers—and the individuals and organizations who support them—to advance sustainability, security, and diversity in open source technology.”

We’re glad to see our friends at the Linux Foundation shining even more sunlight on an issue we are quite passionate about: improving the health and vitality of the open source software infrastructure the world relies on. And we're encouraged to see more tools available to support open source creators in their important work.

When more open source maintainers get resources to support their efforts, we all win. The world gets even more incredible open source software, even faster.

As established industry consortiums like the Linux Foundation focus additional attention and resources on protecting the long-term future viability of our open source infrastructure, some ask what makes Tidelift’s approach unique and how it complements those efforts.

It comes down to this simple, hiding-in-plain-sight fact:

The fundamental challenge for open source maintainers hasn’t been a lack of mechanisms to channel donations. It’s been a lack of well-aligned incentives for users of open source software to pay maintainers for the value they create.

If this were simply a “make it is easier for people to give you money” issue, the internet would be swimming in multi-million dollar independent open source projects, their maintainers driving lambos and living on private islands (full disclosure: I support this vision wholeheartedly). Yet as of yet, the lambo-ification of open source maintainership has not been an issue, as you can count on one hand the number of people who earn enough through donations to work on open source full time.

At Tidelift, we firmly believe that the long term growth and vitality of open source won’t be secured just by creating new ways to donate money to projects—although efforts like CommunityBridge to streamline what can be a bureaucratic process are welcome.

Take a look at the largest businesses that have been built around open source, from Red Hat to Cloudera and beyond. The most scalable incentive to pay maintainers is buying something valuable from them that you wouldn’t otherwise get for free.  

That’s why we’ve designed Tidelift from the very beginning as a way for open source maintainers to offer such a paid service for their packages (in the form of maintenance, security, and licensing assurances), alongside many others, as part of the Tidelift Subscription.

After all, what we’ve learned from talking to hundreds of software development teams over the past few years is that they don’t “pay for open source software.” But they’re happy to pay to reclaim the time they waste wrangling conflicting dependencies, chasing down overburdened maintainers, and dealing with other open source minutiae. They pay to avoid the risk of being Equifaxed by their boss in front of Congress. They pay for clear promises about the future, backed up by the maintainers who built the software in the first place.

In other words, they pay good money for good value delivered.

As Tidelift co-founder Havoc Pennington said in his epic blog post the other day:

“The current narrative around open source is that giant companies should get huge publicity credit for throwing peanuts-to-them donations at a small subset of open source projects... The fact is that open source isn't charity, most of the time. It's been a critical part of huge, profitable businesses for two decades. The vast majority of open source usage and work happens in a commercial context.”

Industry-driven initiatives like CommunityBridge are a signal that the strategic importance of open source to our businesses and our society is finally starting to register. But what would the future look like if top-down large-company-consortium efforts like this were complemented by bottoms-up initiatives with open source maintainers themselves at the forefront?

What if a professional class of independent maintainers emerged who don’t have to put their hands out for donations, but instead have the confidence and the means to band together, bring to market valuable services, while at the same time earning the financial security, freedom, and autonomy to do the work they are passionate about? Could they not just sustain their work, but instead step on the accelerator and speed up the creation of even more great software, creating better outcomes for everyone?

We think so. And that is the world we are trying to create at Tidelift.

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