open source funding models

Posted in Hacking, Random thoughts at 9:05 pm by ducky

Paul Ramsey posted recently that open source was funded by four basic types:

  • The altruist / tinkerer
  • The service provider
  • The systems integrator
  • The company man

He continued by saying, “Notably missing from this list is ‘the billionaire’ and ‘the venture capitalist’.”

I have to quibble a little bit.

Mitch Kapor personally financed (most of) the Open Source Applications Foundation, which pumped quite a bit of money into open source projects.

Obviously a lot of it went into the Chandler project, but some went into various framework projects in order to make them work well enough to use.  For example, OSAF supported someone full-time for several years to improve the Mac version of WxWidgets.

There is also a fair amount of work done by people who made a ton of money and are now tinkering.  I know personally a few people who made boodles on IPOs, retired, and now spend their time on open-source projects.  While you could say that these are in Paul’s “tinkerer” class, these people can invest a lot more energy than someone on nights and weekends is likely to.

I will acknowledge, however, that the fraction of open source work financed by rich folks is probably small.

However, I think Paul is missing some significant sources of open source financing.  Paul’s definition of “company man” talks of people who have a little bit of discretionary time at their work.  Maybe it’s different outside of Silicon Valley, but I don’t know many people who have much discretionary time at work.  On the other hand, there are a fair number of people whose work leads them to contribute to open source in the course of their work.

  • Sometimes they use an open-source project in their work, find that it has some bugs that they need to fix to make their project work, and contribute the fixes back.  This is self-interest: they would rather not port their fixes into each new rev of the open-source project.  My husband said that his former company contributed some fixes for Tk for this reason.
  • There are a few companies who use a technology so much that they feel it worthwhile to support work on that technology.  Google pays Guido von Rossum’s salary, for example.
  • I don’t know what category to put Mozilla into, but it makes money from partnerships (i.e. Google) to finance its development.
  • There is a non-zero amount of money that goes into open source — directly or indirectly — from governments and other non-profit funding agencies.  For example, the Common Solutions Group gave a USD$1.25M to OSAF; the Mellon Foundation gave USD$1.6M.  This made perfect sense: it is far cheaper for university consortia to give OSAF a few million dollars to develop an open-source calendar than it is to give Microsoft tens of millions every year for Exchange.
    • While I don’t have hard data, I bet that a fair amount of open-source work gets done at universities.  All of my CS grad student colleagues work with open source because it’s cheap and easy to publish with.  While they might not release entire projects, I bet I’m not the only one who has fed bug fixes back to the project.

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