Free Software is funded by Free People

published by Henne
in community Cover image: Seagulls by Mike Giles licensed CC-BY-2.0

More and more security incidents in Free Software projects get publicized in a way that anyone & their grandma understand the impact. Some of these carefuly crafted "campaigns" even make it to the main stream media. This trend, among other things, has sparked a discussion about funding Free Software to sustain the infrastructure everyone is building upon. A discussion which, in our venture capital driven tech world, mostly evolves around financing as a means for getting resources. Who can/should pay whom, to develop Free Software and how. I would like to add another view at funding, one that in my opinion has way more to do with Free Software ecosystem than cold, hard cash: collaboration of free people.

Freedom and what you make of it

The ability to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve software. This is the essence of it, without these fundamental rights, software is not Free Software. And these fundamentals imply a purpose: Freedom, the ability to do as one wills. To do to software as one wills.

As always, what people make of their freedom is up to them. Some go an preach about it, most ignore it, some use it for their personal gain. However, it's undeniable that the Free Software movement has entailed a community of systematic world wide collaboration. In software development, and I would argue in many other aspects of todays life. We all know the examples of hundreds of developers hacking together on Linux, thousands of authors on Wikipedia per month, millions of pictures in the creative commons and so on. Obviously, if you give people the freedom to do as they want, many of them are inspired to work together for the common benefit. And because Free Software entails collaboration and collaboration is about individuals, making projects sustainable has many dimensions. Money is one.

Challenges and what you do about them

Of course there are many things going wrong today with making Free Software projects sustainable. For instance a growing imbalance between developers and users (Noah Kantrowitz), that developers think they are not getting fairly compensated (Ryan Bigg) or that everybody is waiting for someone else to do something (Marijn Haverbeke). Contributor burn-out. There are many, many more.

The solutions to these shortcomings, discussed in the past months, most exclusively focus on monetizing work. Be it through business models, crowd funding, grants and other forms of injecting money into the equasion. In a recent piece, Nadia Eghbal even argues that somehow venture capital must flow back because all of the VC funded software companies somehow base their work on Free Software. Steve Klabnik thinks this is already happening. Here is the thing: Money will buy you people who contribute, sure thing. But is it money for contributions that made the present? For sure not. Collaborative contributions are the currency of Free Software.

The openSUSE Community

openSUSE Community by Henne Vogelsang licensed CC BY 4.0

People and how you treat them

People have made Free Software as big as it is. Active contributor communities. Humans from all over the world, with different talents, levels of expertise and cultural backgrounds collaborating. All with their own motivations. Some want to learn from others, some scratch their itch, some want to train their skills, some want to boost their resume, some contribute on behalf of a company, some just try to avoid being bored on a Saturday afternoon. If your project does not actively channel all of these ambitions into contributions, if it does not organize the collaboration, if it is not offering shared responsibility and if it does not attract new contributors it's doing something wrong.

An individual/company slapping a license onto code, uploading it to github, merging pull-requests and answering issues is not making a sustainable Free Software project. Yet this is what many do today.

If you look at the most prominent examples of the software people worry about, openssl or NTP, they are failed communities. They disintegrated to a point where collaboration ceased to exist, the remainaing people were not able to do anything to change this (I'm sure they tried hard) and in the end something bad happened, and now they are clearly not sustained. Now we all can throw some bucks together to keep developers developing but that wont make those projects sustainable Free Software communities. In my opinion paying for contributions is to capitulate in the face of to the task of building a sustainable community. There are other things which are more important.

Fund Free Software without money

I guess the most obvious way to fund Free Software projects without money is to contribute in any way possible for you, duuhh. But apart from that I think there are more things we as the Free Software community at large can do better.

In my opinion it's time we help each other to organize collaboration. We need to share best pratices about creating sustainable contributor communities that attract new people.

We also should be more upfront with each other when we notice communities failing. I have contributed code to NTP a couple of years ago and didn't care that it was such a bleak place. Someone merged my patches, I was off again. In retrospecitve this feels like not telling someone their flap is open.

I also think that we need to do better with copyleft project resources. We have the choice between 27 different C++ compilers but if you're looking for marketing materials, web site themes or templates of contributor guidelines you will draw mostly blanks. Convincing prospective users and contributors that our Free Software does something significantly better than the competition is very important, yet we leave each other hanging with this.

Now go do something

Luckily somewhere Free Software people already have started with all of this. There is the community leadership forum where you can talk about all the aspects of your community. curates a blog of best practices. Designers started to rally around People all over start to address the obvious diversity problem our community has. Next month (July 2016) there is a conference to talk with other Free Software people about Open Source & Feelings and I'm sure there is more going on out there.

What do you think about financing Free Software projects? Are you going to do something about making Free Software sustainable?

Yours truly, Henne 💚


Any criticism, remarks or praise about this post? Get in touch, I'm looking forward to your input!