Corporations and open source: why and how

Friday 7 June 2019

Here’s a really simplistic model: if you want someone to do something, you have to give them a compelling reason to do it, and you have to make it as easy as possible for them to do it. That is, you need to have good answers to Why? and How? (I don’t know much about marketing, but I think these are the value proposition and the call to action.)

Let’s look at the Why and How model as it applies to corporations funding open source. They don’t do it because the answers to Why and How are really bad right now.

Why should a corporation fund open source? As much as I wish it were different for all sorts of reasons, corporations act only in purely selfish ways. In order to spend money, they need to see some positive benefit to them that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t spend the money.

This frustrates me because a corporation is a collection of people, none of whom would act this way. I could say much more about this, but we aren’t going to be able to change corporations.

Companies only spend money if doing so will bring them a (perceived) benefit. Funding open source would make it stronger and better, but that is a very long effect, and not one that accrues directly to the funder. This is the famous Tragedy of the Commons. It’s a fair question for companies to ask: if they fund open source, what do they get for their money?

That’s the difficulty with Why, but let’s imagine for a moment that we could somehow convince someone to spend their company’s money funding open source: now what? How do they do it? A significant Python project could have a hundred library dependencies. How do they decide how to allocate the funding budget among them? Once that decision is made, how does the money get delivered? Very few open source project are equipped to receive funds. If even 10% of the projects have a clear path for funding, now there are 10 checks to write, or 10 PayPal links to click through or whatever? Some of that money will need to be sent internationally, and it has to be considered at tax time. Does it have to be done again next year, and the year after that? It’s a logistical nightmare!

So when we try to convince companies to fund open source, we don’t have good answers for either Why? or How? It’s no wonder it doesn’t happen.

This is one of the reasons I am optimistic about Tidelift: they have good answers for both of these questions. The Tidelift subscription gives companies information and services around their open source dependencies, which answers the why. And the payment to Tidelift solves the how: Tidelift looks at the list of dependencies, decides an allocation, and distributes the money to the maintainers.

Sure, there are still lots of questions to be answered: is the allocation algorithm right? Will enough companies subscribe to make Tidelift itself sustainable? And even larger questions, like: if an interesting amount of money does flow to open source maintainers, what will be the cultural change in open source?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but Tidelift seems like the most promising answer to how to support open source. I’m an enthusiastic participant. You should be too.


A related funding model for non-profit activities is the rich patron model. Why? I imagine some combination of influence on the program, participation in the activities, interaction with other patrons, and fame. The latter includes sponsorship notices and naming rights.

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