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Funding free software

Sunday 29 November 2015

Open source software is great. It's hard to remember that there was a time before Linux, Apache, Python, Ruby, Postgres, etc. These days, when you want to build something, you can start with an enormous amount of high-quality free infrastructure already available to you.

But there's a problem with open source: the work that goes into it is largely unpaid. The work that happens is because of individuals' free time and spare energy. There are exceptions: many companies contribute to open source, some even fund developers full-time to work on it. But the ecosystem is full of useful and important projects that only exist because someone gave away their time and energy.

Not having real funding is holding back open source, because it makes it hard to get started (you have to have spare time and energy), and it makes it hard to stick with it. Two recent blog posts underscore this last point: David MacIver's Throwing in the Towel, and Ryan Bigg's Open source work.

We've gotten pretty far on this model. But we can do a lot better if we find ways to put real resources (money) into the system. Russell Keith-Magee said the whole thing better than I could in his PyCon AU 2015 talk, Money, Money, Money: Writing software, in a rich (wo)man's world:

If a company can find money for foosball tables and meditative ball-pits, they should be able to find the resources to help maintain the software on which they've been basing their success.

Russell has started a GitHub repo as a conversation about how we might be able to make changes. Each issue in Paying the Piper is an idea for funding open source, with discussion. Please go be part of it.

Personally, I think we should try asking companies to donate, and if we make it dead simple enough for them to do the right thing, they just might.

Questions for everyone: do you think you could get your employer to donate to an open-source funding non-profit? What are the hurdles? What could we do together to get them over those hurdles?

Django is at the forefront of this, having just funded a part-time fund-raising position: Introducing the DSF's Director of Advancement. It will be very interesting to see how that works out.

I have a double interest in this: first, the general interest in seeing the Python world grow and flourish. Second, my own work on coverage.py would be a little easier if there were some money flowing back. It wouldn't have to be much, I'm not thinking I could support myself with it, but some tangible return would make the time easier to justify.

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