Does Open Source Have a ‘Working For Free’ Problem?

“Let’s abandon the notion that open source is exclusively charity,” writes Havoc Pennington, a free software engineer (and former Red Hat engineer) who’s now a co-founder of Tidelift: Look around. We do have a problem, and it’s time we do something about it…. The lack of compensation isn’t just bad for individual developers — it also creates social problems, by amplifying existing privilege…. The narrative around open source is that it’s completely OK — even an expectation — that we’re all doing this for fun and exposure; and that giant companies should get huge publicity credit for throwing peanuts-to-them donations at a small subset of open source projects.

There’s nothing wrong with doing stuff for fun and exposure, or making donations, as an option. It becomes a problem when the free work is expected and the donations are seen as enough… What would open source be like if we had a professional class of independent maintainers, constantly improving the code we all rely on?


The essay suggests some things consider, including asking people to pay for:

  • Support requests
  • Security audits/hardening and extremely good test coverage
  • Supporting old releases
  • License-metadata-annotation practices that are helpful for big companies trying to audit the code they use, but sort of a pain in the ass and nobody cares other than these big companies.

“Right now many users expect, and demand, that all of this will be free. As an industry, perhaps we should push back harder on that expectation. It’s OK to set some boundaries…”

“Of course this relates to what we do at Tidelift — the company came out of discussions about this problem, among others… In our day-to-day right now we’re specifically striving to give subscribers a way to pay maintainers of their application dependencies for additional value, through the Tidelift Subscription. But we hope to see many more efforts and discussions in this area…. [I]n between a virtual tip jar and $100 million in funding, there’s a vast solution space to explore.”