This chapter examines how to bring funding into a free software environment. It is aimed not only at developers who are paid to work on free software projects, but also at their managers, who need to understand the social dynamics of the development environment. In the sections that follow, the addressee ("you") is presumed to be either a paid developer, or one who manages such developers. The advice will often be the same for both; when it's not, the intended audience will be made clear from context.
Corporate funding of free software development is not a new phenomenon. A lot of development has always been informally subsidized. When a system administrator writes a network analysis tool to help her do her job, then posts it online and gets bug fixes and feature contributions from other system administrators, what's happened is that an unofficial consortium has been formed. The consortium's funding comes from the sysadmins' salaries, and its office space and network bandwidth are donated, albeit unknowingly, by the organizations they work for. Those organizations benefit from the investment, of course, although they may not be institutionally aware of it at first.
The difference today is that many of these efforts are being formalized. Corporations have become conscious of the benefits of open source software, and started involving themselves more directly in its development. Developers too have come to expect that really important projects will attract at least donations, and possibly even long-term sponsors. While the presence of money has not changed the basic dynamics of free software development, it has greatly changed the scale at which things happen, both in terms of the number of developers and time-per-developer. It has also had effects on how projects are organized, and on how the parties involved in them interact. The issues are not merely about how the money is spent, or how return on investment is measured. They are also about management and process: how can the hierarchical command structures of corporations and the semi-decentralized volunteer communities of free software projects work productively with each other? Will they even agree on what "productively" means?
Financial backing is, in general, welcomed by open source development communities. It can reduce a project's vulnerability to the Forces of Chaos, which sweep away so many projects before they really get off the ground, and therefore it can make people more willing to give the software a chance—they feel they're investing their time into something that will still be around six months from now. After all, credibility is contagious, to a point. When, say, IBM backs an open source project, people pretty much assume the project won't be allowed to fail, and their resultant willingness to devote effort to it can make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, funding also brings a perception of control. If not handled carefully, money can divide a project into in-group and out-group developers. If the unpaid volunteers get the feeling that design decisions or feature additions are simply available to the highest bidder, they'll head off to a project that seems more like a meritocracy and less like unpaid labor for someone else's benefit. They may never complain overtly on the mailing lists. Instead, there will simply be less and less noise from external sources, as the volunteers gradually stop trying to be taken seriously. The buzz of small-scale activity will continue, in the form of bug reports and occasional small fixes. But there won't be any large code contributions or outside participation in design discussions. People sense what's expected of them, and live up (or down) to those expectations.
Although money needs to be used carefully, that doesn't mean it can't buy influence. It most certainly can. The trick is that it can't buy influence directly. In a straightforward commercial transaction, you trade money for what you want. If you need a feature added, you sign a contract, pay for it, and it gets done. In an open source project, it's not so simple. You may sign a contract with some developers, but they'd be fooling themselves—and you—if they guaranteed that the work you paid for would be accepted by the development community simply because you paid for it. The work can only be accepted on its own merits and on how it fits into the community's vision for the software. You may have some say in that vision, but you won't be the only voice.
So money can't purchase influence, but it can purchase things that lead to influence. The most obvious example is programmers. If good programmers are hired, and they stick around long enough to get experience with the software and credibility in the community, then they can influence the project by the same means as any other member. They will have a vote, or if there are many of them, they will have a voting bloc. If they are respected in the project, they will have influence beyond just their votes. There is no need for paid developers to disguise their motives, either. After all, everyone who wants a change made to the software wants it for a reason. Your company's reasons are no less legitimate than anyone else's. It's just that the weight given to your company's goals will be determined by its representatives' status in the project, not by the company's size, budget, or business plan.
There are many different reasons open source projects get funded. The items in this list aren't mutually exclusive; often a project's financial backing will result from several, or even all, of these motivations:
Separate organizations with related software needs often find themselves duplicating effort, either by redundantly writing similar code in-house, or by purchasing similar products from proprietary vendors. When they realize what's going on, the organizations may pool their resources and create (or join) an open source project tailored to their needs. The advantages are obvious: the costs of development are divided, but the benefits accrue to all. Although this scenario seems most intuitive for nonprofits, it can make strategic sense even for for-profit competitors.
When a company sells services which depend on, or are made more attractive by, particular open source programs, it is naturally in that company's interests to ensure those programs are actively maintained.
The value of computers and computer components is directly related to the amount of software available for them. Hardware vendors—not just whole-machine vendors, but also makers of peripheral devices and microchips—have found that having high-quality free software to run on their hardware is important to customers.
Sometimes companies support a particular open source project as a means of undermining a competitor's product, which may or may not be open source itself. Eating away at a competitor's market share is usually not the sole reason for getting involved with an open source project, but it can be a factor.
Example: http://www.openoffice.org/ (no, this isn't the only reason OpenOffice exists, but the software is at least partly a response to Microsoft Office).
Having your company associated with a popular open source application can be simply good brand management.
Dual-licensing is the practice of offering software under a traditional proprietary license for customers who want to resell it as part of a proprietary application of their own, and simultaneously under a free license for those willing to use it under open source terms (see “Dual Licensing Schemes” in Capítulo 9, Licenses, Copyrights, and Patents). If the open source developer community is active, the software gets the benefits of wide-area debugging and development, yet the company still gets a royalty stream to support some full-time programmers.
Two well-known examples are MySQL, makers of the database software of the same name, and Sleepycat, which offers distributions and support for the Berkeley Database. It's no coincidence that they're both database companies. Database software tends to be integrated into applications rather than marketed directly to users, so it's very well-suited to the dual-licensing model.
A widely-used project can sometimes get significant contributions, from both individuals and organizations, just by having an online donation button, or sometimes by selling branded merchandise such as coffee mugs, T-shirts, mousepads, etc. A word of caution: if your project accepts donations, plan out how the money will be used before it comes in, and state the plans on the project's web site. Discussions about how to allocate money tend to go a lot more smoothly when held before there's actual money to spend; and anyway, if there are significant disagreements, it's better to find that out while it's still academic.
A funder's business model is not the only factor in how it relates to an open source community. The historical relationship between the two also matters: did the company start the project, or is it joining an existing development effort? In both cases, the funder will have to earn credibility, but, not surprisingly, there's a bit more earning to be done in the latter case. The organization needs to have clear goals with respect to the project. Is the company trying to keep a position of leadership, or simply trying to be one voice in the community, to guide but not necessarily govern the project's direction? Or does it just want to have a couple of committers around, able to fix customers' bugs and get the changes into the public distribution without any fuss?
Keep these questions in mind as you read the guidelines that follow. They are meant to apply to any sort of organizational involvement in a free software project, but every project is a human environment, and therefore no two are exactly alike. To some degree, you will always have to play by ear, but following these principles will increase the likelihood of things turning out the way you want.