Open Source & MoneyPart II

time to read 4 min | 616 words

I run into this tweet:

I wanted to respond to that, because it ties very closely to the previous post. As I already said, getting paid for open source is a problem. You either try to do that professionally (full time) or you don’t. Trying to get hobbyist amount of money from open source is not really working. And when you are doing this professionally, there is a very different manner of operating. For this post, I want to talk about the other side, the people who want to pay for certain things, but can’t.

Let’s say that Jane works for a multibillion dollar company. She is using project X for a certain use case and would like to extend its capabilities to handle and additional scenario. We’ll further say that this project has a robust team or community behind it, so there is someone to talk to.

If the feature in question isn’t trivial, it is going to require a substantial amount of work. Jane doesn’t want to just bug the maintainers for this, but how can she pay for that? The first problem that you run into is who to pay. There isn’t usually an organization behind the project. Just figuring out who to pay can be a challenge. The next question is whatever that person can even accept payments. In Israel, for example, if you aren’t an independent employee, there is a lot of bureaucracy you have to go through if you want to accept money outside of your employer.

Let’s say that the cost of the feature is set around 2,500$ – 7,500$. That amount usually means that Jane can’t just hand it over and claim it in her expenses. She needs someone from Accounts Payable to handle that, which means that it needs to go through the approval process, there should be a contract (so legal is also involved), they might be a required bidding process, etc.

The open source maintainer on the other side is going to get an 8 pages contract written is dense legalese and have to get a lawyer to go over that. So you need to cover that expense as well. There are delivery clauses in the contract, penalties for late delivery, etc. You need to consider whatever this is work for hire or not (matters for copy right law), whatever the license on the project is suitable for the end result, etc. For many people, that level of hassle for a rare occurrence of non life changing amount of money is too much.  This is especially true if they are already employed and need to do that on top of their usual work.

For Jane, who would like her employer to pay for a feature, this is too much of a hassle to go through all the steps and paperwork involved. Note that we aren’t talking about a quick email, we are probably talking weeks of having to navigate through the hierarchy, getting approval from multiple parties (and remember that there is also the maintainer on the other side as well).

In many cases, the total cost that is involved here can very quickly reach ridiculous levels. There is a reason why in many cases it is easier for such companies to simply hire the maintainers directly. It simplify a lot of work for all sides, but it does means that the project is no longer independent.

More posts in "Open Source & Money" series:

  1. (19 Nov 2020) Part II
  2. (18 Nov 2020) Part I