While trickle down economics doesn’t work, “trickle down sustainability” as it’s applied to free and open-source software is a concept that might just work. It’s not a silver bullet and will not solve the problem of FOSS funding once and for all. But as with most problems, we’re not trying to get from A to Z, but from A to B. A step forward in the right direction.
What’s the idea?
- Popular frontend, user-facing software (what the user “sees”) should bear the responsibility to raise funds from users, in whichever manner the project leadership sees fit. Offering the software completely free (as in gratis), although very nice, is going to make this more difficult.
- The same frontend software project’s leadership should look at the list of dependencies that it relies upon and identify those that are both important to the project and are currently lacking funds.
- Assign a portion of the revenue to such dependencies. These can be contracts for new features (ok), no-strings-attached yearly maintenance/improvements work (best) or any other benefit that the leadership might be interested in getting. Donations are to be avoided, unless your dependency is part of a non-profit, mostly because accountants will want to know what was actually purchased.
Why frontend software? Because this is what users see, and this is what they can buy. When you buy a car you don’t buy metal frames, glass panels and tires. You buy a car.
Open-source is kind of unique. Because the cost of replication is zero, dependencies can be used to create billions of dollars in value, but the authors might never receive a cent. And many don’t care, which is fine, since for many FOSS is a hobby. Offer the funding anyway, get a “no thanks” and move on distributing the funds to another dependency.
Software libraries and other non-frontend FOSS projects looking for funding should explicitly broadcast their openness and interest toward funding, to facilitate identification.
Due to the taboo around money and open-source, at present projects rarely ask directly for funding. But the presence of a donation/sponsorship button is a clear indicator and cannot be missed.
If we allowed people to easily purchase FOSS and distribute the funds organically down through the dependency chain, in time it could be possible to create a sustainable, market-driven system in which FOSS developers get rewarded for their efforts. Thriving instead of surviving.1