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Who pays the developers?

Who pays the developers? The company they work for, right? But what about those developers who develop Open Source software after hours, on their own time and equipment? Who pays them? Many say no one does and no one should. After all, it's Free Software. You don't get paid for Free Software. Before we develop such a closed attitude, let's take a look at what one of the founders of the Free Software movement has to say.

Richard Stallman, in his article published in the book Open Sources -- Voices from the Open Source Revolution, says[1]:

"The term 'Free Software' is sometimes misunderstood -- it has nothing to do with price. It is about freedom. Since 'free' refers to freedom, not to price, there is no contradiction between selling copies and Free Software. In fact, the freedom to sell copies is crucial: collections of Free Software sold on CDROMs are important for the community, and selling them is an important way to raise funds for Free Software development."

In short, Mr. Stallman is saying that the marketing and selling of Free Software is important -- if not crucial -- to the success of the Free Software movement. Which brings us back to the question... Who pays the developers?

As a developer or two have told me, they write what they write because of the satisfaction they get from seeing the results of their work. I can understand that; I have the job I do in this industry because making things work smoothly and efficiently is a very satisfying job to me. However, I don't do it for free, no matter how much satisfaction it gives me. Yes, sometimes I set up a network at a friends' house, or help them deal with their ISP (I speak the same tech talk as the ISP), but I still receive compensation. Not monetary compensation, but rather in the form of "I scratch your back, you scratch mine". Developers also deserve fair and equitable compensation for what they do, no matter how much they love to do it.

Some of what these people develop does earn them compensation -- grades in school for projects that are part of a Masters or Doctoral thesis, the recognition of their peers, and, finally, a paycheck from the boss. Unfortunately, that last one often isn't for Open Source development. Yes, a few lucky souls have been able to secure positions inside the cathedral that allow them to work on their projects and get paid. Most, however, aren't that lucky. The need for food and shelter often outweighs the need for personal satisfaction, and you end up writing the code the bosses want instead of the code you want.

The effect is that when push comes to shove, the stomach wins. You give in to the desire for some luxury in your life (like that new $1,200 video accelerator for Quake), take a job in the field you know best, and end up writing code for a company that isn't Open Source.

This often means that there is a conflict between what you write on the job and the project you were working on in your spare time. NDAs stop you from coding your project because it's too close to work, so you turn the project over to other people. They, of course, don't know your vision for the project, nor do they know your style or objectives, so the project takes a new direction, and wheels get reinvented. This tends to slow releases and hamper progress. Worse yet, the project winds up being abandoned altogether.

What are the alternatives? Well, you could become a starving artist, but few (if any) worthwhile projects have ever come out of skid row. Besides, the connectivity sucks. If you're lucky and have a rich uncle (sugar daddy, VC, whatever), you could end up running a Sendmail or a Netscape. You could become a consultant, but this is really just another form of starting your own company, and consultants are like experts -- the more you have, the less you accomplish. For most projects and most developers, these options really aren't options at all.

Often, when we're faced with a problem such as this, looking into history provides the answer we need. In this case, it's books. What do books have to do with the Web? Like the Web, at the time of their introduction, they were a revolutionary new way to deliver information accurately and consistently to the masses. Also like the Web, it wasn't practical for each author to start his or her own company to sell the books they wrote. Not only wasn't it cost effective, it also got in the way of their writing. The answer was: the publishing house.

A publishing house provides the infrastructure needed by the author to market his or her creation, and provides assistance in "tuning" the product to the market, all without stopping the author from doing what he/she loves best. What is needed in the software world is just that, a publishing house for Open Source projects.

Sure, a number of distros already publish and critique software. They sell it, too. What they don't do is pay a royalty to the developer. If a project goes south, they either drop it from the next release, replace it with a new project, or co-opt the project and continue development in-house. They don't pay a royalty to the developer who created what they are now selling.

The time has come to demand the developer's right to fair and equitable compensation for his or her efforts, whatever that may be.

The right to fair compensation is as much a right as any in the U.S. Bill of Rights. A means to publish and distribute what people create is as needed in the software industry today as it was in the book industry centuries ago. Who pays the developers should be the very same people who enjoy the benefits of using what the developer created. TANSTAAFL. I, for one, feel it's time to compensate those who create the software, in a manner that reflects the quality of their efforts.

[1] Open Sources -- Voices from the Open Source Revolution, O'Reilly Press, Copyright 1999, pgs. 56-67.

Recent comments

17 Dec 2006 15:48 Avatar L505

Re: As a developer...

> I definitely agree with these
> sentiments. I hope to someday earn some
> money from Open Source software. I also
> agree with the principle that people
> should get paid for their work. That is
> why I regularly buy upgrades from RedHat
> and other Open Source companies. Yes, I
> could download the upgrades for free. I
> choose not to because we live in a
> market economy and unless GM starts
> giving away cars and other companies
> follow suit with their products
> developers need to be able to support
> themselves.
> I'd rather pay for Open Source
> software than for proprietary code. I
> think that as the Open Source movement
> takes hold more people will realize the
> benefits to be gained by paying for
> "free" software. After all, the
> greatest benefits of Open Source, access
> to the code, the ability to make your
> own changes, etc. don't go away when you
> send the developers money for the
> product.

The problem with this is that you are paying redhat money but you are not rewarding the hard working developers who do not work at red hat. This is the same thing as a newspaper company who gets millions of dollars for selling their newspaper - but the newspaper folks pay the carriers to deliver the papers for much much less than minimum wage.. yet the carriers who do all the work dropping the papers off at the doors should be rewarded much more than they are in reality. So when you pay redhat, you may be paying someone for something - but you are not neccessarily helping developers, you are just helping the CEO's and customer service reps at red hat.

17 Dec 2006 15:15 Avatar L505

Re: brave new world


> % It is important to realize that free

> % software can be sold in both ethical

> and

> % moral confidence, and it was never

> % intended any other way.

> %



> Couldn't have said it better myself.

> Thank you, Lion Kimbro.


> We feel that developers should be

> rewarded for doing

> what they do best; developing. Phone

> support, documentation, and packaging

> new releases doesn't sound to me like

> developing. That's why publishers

> provide a sensible and necessary service

> to the open source community.


> Best,

> -Paul Reiber

> CTO, Open Country


But Developers don't get paid for developing, developers get paid for packaging, and phone support. The gnu web pages say so.

08 Mar 2003 10:11 Avatar cullenfluffyjennings

Re: Lots of people have 6 digit salaries to do nothing but write open source software
A lot less people have 6 digit salaries to write open source software than in 2001.

08 Oct 2002 17:14 Avatar smoses

Re: electronic communism
Yeah those were the days.
at the Speakeasy drinking quad breves and living for next to nothing. My favorite thing about the area was how easy it was to get lost. But even when you have no idea where you are, there is always a coffee house near by.

I miss Seattle.

Good point on communism too. I mostly agree.

28 Sep 2002 11:42 Avatar strategic

Re: Sounds like...
I couldn't agree more with you. But there are other marketplaces such as, where you can register for free. Infact, operates in a very similar way to Elance. The number of projects are very low but they seem to be growing.

> I don't like trying to market my own
> products. I like to code the things I
> will use or feel others might use and
> not have to worry about making something
> marketable. I don't want to have to come
> up with glossy logos, do press releases,
> and so forth. I just want to code and
> maybe get enough money coming in that I
> can avoid working at Burger King or
> signing nasty NDA's. I tried some of
> those sites like elance but they make it
> a hassle to get paid to code and they
> charge you for the privledge even before
> you get paid. I'd be glad to have a
> disto/publisher look after all the
> business nitty gritty and pay me some
> percentage. As long as they still give
> the code away for free -- as it is
> licensed -- that is a great solution! My
> only other real choice is to have a
> PayPal account and a donations button on
> my website. Not a very reliable means of
> income. :)


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