In this blog post I will discuss how to make money with open source software. Why do you care? Especially the free software variant is consumer friendly. (note that these consumers maybe businesses too), however for developers trying to make a living of writing such software is difficult. Which is a big problem, we often end up having developers doing the work in their free time, next to a day job, rather than focusing full time on their projects.
I would like to do this myself full time. Lest I became financially independent, I couldn’t. So in here I will list the options I found trough researching the subject. As both an overview to myself and to the interested reader.
We will start by Googling the subject, because this is easier than trying to be creative myself. Then I will present the my opinions around the results I found. I will conclude with a list of options I liked and why.
I already had some ideas about how to do this, but its interesting what Google says about the subject. I was humbled by the results of putting a little effort into searching. This should of course come not as a surprise to me, but every time when I always have the urge to ‘just start’ without doing research, and every time I discover this is a mistake.
In my naive approach I searched for “Making money with foss”. The first site that came up was info world. This site was full of warning flags, click bait title, advertise other articles mid article (instead of at the end), using a pager. After skimming the article it wasn’t about making money of an open source project, but potential reasons for open sourcing (part of) your code. It was aimed at mid to high level management, non technical texts are of no interest to me, mainly because they usually have an agenda. A second article linked to another page with a better list, but I couldn’t find it. The third article was just a summery of a video and wasn’t very focused. Okay so my search terms were bad. Time to be more specific.
I searched for “foss business models”, you know you did something right when scholarly articles start being presented. So there was an entire Wikipedia page on the subject. I guess more people are really interested in this. So does this blog post die in the cradle? I say no, I can still give my opinions on that page. Another thing is that discussing this page on my blog will force me to closely look at the possibilities. Besides the fact that there is a (quite big) wiki on it only shows how much people care about this subject.
The Business models
So the core problem open source software faces is not having a monopoly on distribution that copyright provides. Therefore we can’t sell it directly: Anyone can start distributing the software without asking anything for it, without running a loss because distribution is (practically) free for software. Giving up this monopoly is a necessary requirement for open source, called the second and thirth freedoms. This is also done with the BSD like licenses, so we can consider it a part of open source. Therefore we need to find a way of making money by working around this restriction.
Sell stuff besides software
One of the primary strategies is selling stuff besides the software. Red Hat does this trough providing support contracts for example. This can be extended by providing certificates of expertise (which Red Hat also does).
Another strategy is selling of merchandise, such as fan T-shirts or coffee cups. Which the wikimedia foundation does. Selling merchandise is quite clever because its much more easy for someone to buy ‘something’, rather than just donating. Besides its free advertisement for your project, and your users now have something to identify themselves with. So I think if you have a project you should seriously consider doing this.
Finally a programmer can rent himself out to a project to add features or do bug fixes. These include bountysource or kickstarter, where bountysource is usually fix an issue first and then get paid whereas kickstarter works on promises. In essence you’re offering up your own time to work on a project. In both cases there is of course the persistent issue that its hard to decide how much time this will take. With kickstarter however you can estimate it better because you’re probably starting your own bigger project, so the overhead of estimation is smaller. With bounty source each bounty requires its own estimate and these are often smaller, think of about \$100, its hard to decide to even bother with that. Another issue with bounty source is that you have to switch from project to project often, which requires a lot of getting familiar with the code base overhead. The model of bounty source is less then perfect to live off. Although for existing developers of a project its a great motivation to work a little more. But don’t expect strangers to ‘join in’, just because of the bounties unless they’re highly overvalued. In fact you can see that few people ‘live’ off bounty source just by the overview of bounty hunters. Only three people at the time of writing got over \$2000 in the last 90 days and only 9 over \$1000.
In the strategy of renting yourself out is going to interested parties yourself and offer to write software. I’ve attempted this at times with for example offertex and schijt je rijk. The issue that always gets me is negotiating about price. And of course once the work is finished, you need to find more work. Therefore you won’t get better overtime. Imitating red hat with support contracts could do that, but starting with that on your own is hard.
Another powerful trick of trying to become self sustained on software is using donations. The big issue with this is of course getting people to donate in the first place. A famous example of a donation scheme as that of mozzilla firefox 1.0 release.
Recently however another model has popped up in the form of patreon. The idea is pretty simple, subscribe to a creator and every time he puts something out (or every month) donate a small by you decided amount. Some developers have embraced this idea, although I haven’t seen anyone that earns self sustaining amounts. It does provide a reliable income stream and is aimed at individuals, and since there are other creators who have managed to get to a sustainable level. We can expect this to happen eventually for software developers too.
The big advantage patreon offers over bounty source is that, rather than having to think about how much time creating a feature costs as with bountysource, you can just continue improving the project how you think it should be done. Of course some trust in the developer is necessary for that, bounty source doesn’t have that problem, since payment is done afterwards and I assume regulated by bountysource. However appearantly bounty source offers a similar service for projects.
A trick often overlooked by most developers is advertising. In principle free software is not against the idea of advertising. However a problem with this is that anyone can take your software, remove the advertisements, and redistribute the add free version. You can prevent this from happening by offering two versions, one with adds and one without and then ask your users to support the project by downloading the one with adds.
Addblock plus famously white listed adds as a way of generating revenue. It may be considered hypocritical, but remember that as free software anyone can fork it and remove this feature. Not that you have to since there are already alternatives. Note that although Adblock Plus probably made quite a good load of money with their white listing program, it will probably kill the project eventually. I imagine the people who go out of their way to install an ad blocker are not the kind of people who are satisfied with an ever laxer white list.
The final category for making money with open source is license trickery. So this comes from the idea that, if you are the sole copyright holder, you can put the software under various licenses. Note that it is a big if to be the sole copyright holder, you need consent that any contributor is handing over their copyright. And as we will see in the re-license case, this can be abused. Which increases contributing barrier significantly. But in return as project owner you get a lot more possibilities for making money.
Dual licenses are a practice where you offer one open license, and another business aimed license which promises more support than the open license or removes restrictions (such as forcing open source). This is where AGPLV3 shines, original authors can offer large organizations an alternative license, however downstream receivers of the code under AGPL cannot do this. Mongodb is an example that does this and they can only do this by asking contributors to hand over copyright. As a contributor you should be wary of doing this, copy left doesn’t work if you hand over copyright. If you work under BSD or MIT kind of licenses it doesn’t matter (and I assume you already came to terms with this).
However, this does allow a company to thrive upon open source. A company is still required to hoard in the business deals with other companies, and to collect the copyright assignments from contributors. It may be taken over similarly as Oracle did to Sun. But the AGPL based code was already under license, so the community can step in and take over development, as happened with Illumos (Solaris fork) after Oracle went on its rampage.
This has however a darker side in potential license trolling. Which Oracle (who else) did for example with a database. Changing from BSD to AGPLv3, which in case of Debian required around 100 other dependent packages to change to AGPLv3 too. Which of course is not going to happen. Oracle probably did this to force users of that database to take a commercial license instead, taking foss projects (such as Debian) as collateral damage.
Proprietary extensions involve releasing an open source core and add (usually business centred) proprietary extensions. The Wikipedia page lists several example but the one I’m personally familiar with is the IntelliJ project. Which is opensource, has a proprietary paid extension, and also a cla (which doesn’t hand over copyright but does a similar thing, licenses a right to copy).
Because IntelliJ is open source it allowed Google to create android studio. This is great for the IntelliJ team because now there is another party that is dependent on their core of which they hold all copyright. Google may help developing the IntelliJ Java core, just to get it to work for android developers. This is the thing most companies are after with open source, free programming manpower.
Delayed open sourcing
This is the thing John Carmack famously did with ID tech. After some time selling the games he would release the source of the games. Which he did for Doom, Quacke even Doom 3. This in turn led the games to be developed upon for a long time after their release. For example ioquake3, still actively develops the quake engine, driving sales of the quake game itself because the assets aren’t freely available.
If you are the sole copyright holder, you can stop distributing under the open source license and re-license it. Originally I didn’t want to include this option because you’re no longer doing foss at this point, however, it opens up the opportunity to hate upon Oracle. So lets hate upon Oracle.
So if we Google: Why oracle is horrible, we can get some dumb quora answers. These are just not the point. This reddit thread, sums it up nicely. What is really dog kicking evil were the Solaris issues, which is discussed in this this video. A little further in the video its is explained how it happened. So what happened is that Oracle obtained all copyright from various authors by buying SUN which required initially handing over copyright, Open Solaris was closed by Oracle with a re-license. This was only possible because Sun asked contributors to fork over copyright. What we can learn from this is that if you contribute to free software and care about it, never hand over copyright. I’m happy to say however that a fork of Solaris occurred called Illumos that seems to still be active.
Because we are interested in making money, this post will took us all over the place. On the one hand we have the greedy businesses, and on the other side the diligent developer. Licenses were never discussed in hbo or university, which is interesting because these are the methods corporations use to make money. I think having discussed the overview and shown some concrete examples was a good exercise. I was not aware at all for example of the AGPLv3 practices which are interesting (without passing moral judgment). My blog seems to be really focused on money, but this is a reflection of what I’m worried about these days, having almost graduated.