Why Open Source Needs Non Profits

Posted by Jim Jagielski on Monday, January 30. 2012 in Open Source

It's expected that pretty soon we all will hear about the next big "tech" IPO, which will create a mass of instant millionaires and billionaires. And these newly rich will have made their fortunes, at least partly, by leveraging Open Source and the efforts of unpaid volunteers.

I'm often asked, "Doesn't that bother you?" Ignoring the implication that somehow I "deserve" something due to my involvement when there are, of course, multitudes of people more deserving than I, I can honest answer, "No, not really." 

Of course, it's not always that way. One of the coolest things that Red Hat, Inc. did when they had their IPO was to allocate a chunk of shares for numerous "open source people" as part of their "Friends and Family" program. It was a neat way of saying "Thanks" and it was also a great way to acknowledge not only their dependence on Open Source, but also their belief in a true community around open source, a sort of "we're all in this together" point of view, a worldview which continues to this day.

But Red Hat's IPO was back in 1999, ages ago. It's difficult to come up with any company heavily based on leveraging open source which did anything similar recently... or even within the last decade. Certainly, some people who have made out quite well, financially, due to their (or their companies) connection with Open Source, contribute back to the community at large; but it's also easy to find others who, after making their millions, have dropped off the radar, making one question if their attachment to open source was real or feigned.

Open Source companies have always needed to be aware of their status and their somewhat precarious position within the community; that's certainly not anything new. The dustbin of history is full of companies who saw the communities around "their" open source project as little more than indentured servants, and suffered the consequences of their hubris. And I dare say that there are some around today. But there are also those smart companies who see open source communities as valuable partners, and do what they can to help foster and nourish them.

But even that can only go so far; even in the best of all worlds, there will always be that division, between those who directly profit financially and those who don't. How can the true "volunteer" developer not be disenfranchised by what he/she sees?

In my mind, this is why the foundation, and non-profits, are so crucial to the long-term success of open source. To counter-act the gravitational pull of "open source for profit", the foundation supplies that anti-gravity field to even things out. It's the Ying to the commercial Yang. For open source to continue to succeed, in a world of companies leveraging open source for personal gain, it needs an entity that exists that specifically refuses that gain. Without a central foundation which serves as the melting pot for volunteerism, which serves as the protector of the volunteer, and which disdains financial gain by providing a true public service, open source could never survive.

 Open Source foundations want to share what they have; if their example encourages others to share as well, then that's just extra goodness. But that's not a goal, it's not a reason that foundations exist.  And true open source people like sharing...

But if you want to buy 'em a beer, they won't say No. 

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