Author of Kubernetes Patterns, creator of OSS.fund
After working with open source for over a decade, from startups to the world’s largest open source company, and cataloging more than 100 open source monetization and funding platforms for my side project, I came to a realization. The term open source does not have a broad enough perspective to capture all of the perceived values of modern software built in the open. To achieve that, open source needs a broader vision and a supporting infrastructure for open governance and open funding.
In the past, the value of open source was in the source code and we can see that in the essential freedoms of free software and the distribution criteria of the open source definition. That is no longer the case. Today, open source is produced fast, but more importantly, it is rotting and getting obsolete even faster. There are other characteristics of open source projects than access to source code that is valued. The value of open source is in adoption that sometimes can be up to the point that a project becomes the de facto standard for a certain class of technology (such as Apache Kafka for messaging). The value is in the loosely coordinated, open collaboration and partnership among competing participants towards a joint goal (such as Kubernetes SIGs contributors). The value is in the long term sustainability of a project, that can outlive a company acquisition or bankruptcy (such as Oracle and the Jenkins project). Today, the successful open source model is more an epitome of user adoption, healthy community cooperation, and long-term sustainability, along the free as in free speech source code.
First, I’d say that is the license. The license dictates how the source code and its derivatives (binaries, services) can be distributed or not. It is the single non-negotiable yay or nay factor for many users. It is what qualifies a project as open source or not. Unfortunately, the license alone cannot guarantee that a project will deliver the full potential of open source project benefits.
Second, I’d say project governance. The governance model sets the rules for making important project decisions and dictates how the “owners” of the project interact with the community. There are examples where the governance is managed through a trusted software foundation, that offers neutrality, stability, and transparency, but at the same time, it can cause a lack of flexibility and lead to community stagnation. There are also examples of projects governed by a single company, which can lead to changes to the project license and even transition to proprietary software models.
As a user of an open source project, I want it to be open source so I can exercise my freedoms. At the same time, I want it to be widely adopted so I can find questions and answers, blog posts and best practices, developers, and support providers, even consume the software as a service. An open source project, w/o community, is a marketing tool in disguise. An open source project, that hasn’t reached the critical community mass, doesn’t deliver full value. Today, the value of open source is in the community, as much as in the source code. And a project’s license and governance directly impact its community health.
And the third aspect of an open source project is the financial model for long term sustainability. An open source project w/o continuous financial incentives for its supporters can become unmaintained overnight. An unmaintained project is a full of security vulnerabilities project. An open source project with security vulnerabilities is a dead project. A dead open source project is… nobody gives a damn about the freedoms of a dead project.
We have seen many times how open source projects w/o predictable financial stability are left unmaintained, or get forced to change their license and become proprietary. Sometimes, such projects are run by a single company. An open source project in the hands of a single company does not deliver open collaboration benefits. It becomes a company project aligned with the company strategy, roadmaps, and tied to the company's financial health. That is not a bad thing, but it is not a true open source thing either.
The foundation for sustainable open source projects
The long term financial health of project maintainers is very often the missing link between the source code and its community. The funding model of a project, or the lack of one, can influence the governance, the license choice, and even break a community.
This is where a new broader open source vision and infrastructure is needed. When I go to Github, the things I notice about a project are the number of stars and forks. These are easily gameable metrics that are supposed to indicate community engagement. The second thing I notice is the license of the project that tells me what I can do with the source code. Those who are about to invest significant amounts of time, effort, and their professional reputation into an open source project, would also check the governance model. If the project belongs to a foundation, who is sponsoring the foundation. Who is in the project management committee and how are these elected? How to change any existing procedures, project features, and who are the gatekeepers, etc. On some occasions, these rules are written down on a Wiki page, but for smaller projects, they are not written, and the project owners can do anything they wish and do it even without community involvement or transparency. Unless a project is part of a software foundation, there are no open source governance frameworks that represent the best of breed practices. There is no way to apply a governance model to a project by adding a single file (similar to the license file). When there is a governance model, there is no automatic way to guarantee that these governance rules are respected.
The last thing I want to see about a project is its financial health and sustainability metrics. As explained earlier, a financially unhealthy open source project is a promise for unexpected changes and headaches. Today, there is not a single indicator of a project’s financial health status. If a project is part of a software foundation, we can see what benefits the project is getting from such membership, but usually, these are for sustaining the foundation rather than projects. If a project is run by a single company, there is no way to know the contribution of the project to the company finances. If the project maintainers are using Github Sponsors, we can see the current sponsors, or we can check Patreon for donations, or search tens of other places for similar indicators. None of these open source funding platforms is feature-complete, or popular enough with open source supporters to ensure the sustainability of the backed projects. Today, there aren’t any widely adopted long term financial commitment platforms for open source users. There aren’t any trusted financial health indicators for open source projects either.
Imagine a future world where open source is more than a development methodology or marketing opportunity. Instead, it is an open technological equilibrium where intellectual and financial values are exchanged. In such an open source dominated future, I want to be able to do:
Imagine you look at a software project, and you can see it has an open source license, transparent governance model, AND financial backing. This is the open source project with the fundamentals to deliver sustainable freedom for a long period. Some of this future vision is aspirational and some is explored and applied by blockchain projects.
For example, SourceCred is a platform for communities to measure and reward value creation. It is a transparent and open way of tracking merit based on work performed in open communities.
Dev Protocol is another one that allows OSS creators to tokenize their projects and distribute the incentives to the token holders. It also offers a unique funding model through staking where both maintainers and supporters earn yield.
Gitcoin is the leader in bounty offerings for the blockchain space. More interestingly, Gitcoin also offers gamified ways to learn and earn rewards, grants that are backed by the Quadratic Funding method that increase donations, etc. If you are interested in what's next for open source, go and check these projects and keep an eye on my twitter feed as I cover these projects next time.
I know the term open source was never meant to include governance, community, and financing aspects of the software. But today, these are key characteristics of open source projects that can indirectly limit user freedoms and benefits in the long term. A fully open source project requires a more holistic perspective. It is more than source code in the open. It is more than an open development methodology. It is more than a consumer marketing opportunity. It is more than a roadmap for more sales. It is all of these forces managed all in the open. At that point, perhaps it is not open source only any longer. It becomes a decentralized open source software (DOSS) with open governance and open funding.
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