Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Developing open source: don't listen to the people that want you to live under a bridge

This post is for open source developers and all other people working on open source, while trying to make a living. You may also get referred to this page if you made an open source developer unhappy with your demands.

Let's start at the very beginning: authoring, documenting, packaging and supporting any software takes stupendous amounts of time. Quality requires serious, dedicated and sustained effort.

Secondly, we need to realise that people also need to eat, live somewhere, get health insurance and often eventually raise and support a family. It would also be great if they saved for their retirement.

Combining these two, doing a non-trivial open source project requires more than 'evening hours and weekend work'. It requires people dedicated to the task. But they also need to make money to live!

And eventually this collides with some folks' expectations of open source. It turns out you generally can't live on charitable donations, and I'm not even sure if you should - donations come and go, and they may also come with expectations that are contrary to those of your actual users. Most large open source projects will therefore need to make money the traditional way: by actually selling something.

There are loads of things you can sell. Consulting, support, new features (even open source, people will pay to get the features they need), training, training materials, value added services, perhaps even some non-free software on top of the stuff you give away. But no matter how you do it: if you ask money for things, some people who can't or won't pay get left out in the cold.

And this frequently leads to anger. People will accuse you of selling out, and this hurts. They may even mention you are stealing from the community. Oddly enough they will also threaten to stop using your software! And all of this because you try to make a living so you can provide this great open source stuff for free.

So here's my word of encouragement: there is a segment of the open source community that you will never appease. They won't be satisfied until you live under a bridge, sell your body by day so you can code by night. For free.

You won't ever make these people happy. Whatever you do, it will not be free enough, and you should always do more. Their threat to stop using your software should tell you everything you need to know about them. Finally also realise that more often than not, the very people that accuse you of selling out work for horrible companies that would not DREAM of committing anything back to the community!

So separate out these people that want you to live on the streets from the parts of the community you should be listening to. They will help you guide the complex and challenging landscape of 'making money with open source'. But if you try to make wrong people happy, you'll fail and you and your software will end up badly.

(On a side note - open source is a community, not just business. There is no need to sell all or even the majority of your work. Some things are just a great idea, and you should add them to your software. Also ponder, users that need other stuff from you might "pay" you in Q&A, documentation work, (performance) testing etc. So don't get me wrong - this post is about making a living, not about asking money for everything!)

Summarising: making money with open source is ok, because delivering quality for a non-trivial project costs time, and that time can't come after dinner when you are tired from your day job. It should be a real job, and that requires income. Don't feel bad about it and don't try to make the wrong people happy. Do listen to the rest, as there is real tension between open source and making money, and they can guide you.

Good luck!


  1. Good post but do not forget that there *are* people who make great Free Software projects in their spare time, "after dinner when they are tired", or on weekends. In places, your post almost seems to look down on those people and thell them that just because they're not paid, their contributions to the Free Software world must be less valuable, which I'm sure you didn't intend.

  2. open source != free

    It's easy to get that mixed up.