Open Path

by Chad Whitacre

Open Source Is a Restaurant

By Chad Whitacre ❧ Published on April 5, 2024
tl;dr It was a great meal. Are we going to pay the tab?
Disclosure / advertisement: I work for Sentry.

With XZ we’re in a fresh round of proposals to fix Open Source sustainability. One thing I’m seeing more of this time around is an appetite for tax-based approaches. Tim Bray proposes OSQI. Matthew Hodgson also calls for government funding. I’ve pitched a weird hybrid “voluntary tax.”

Europe is (unsurprisingly) further along with tax-based approaches than the United States. Sovereign Tech Fund is off and running in Germany. FOSSEPS seems to be coming along behind at the EU scope.

Tax-based programs tend to be grant-driven, similar to what we see with industrial philanthropies in the U.S. such as the Sloan Foundation. With this model, maintainers apply for funding for a certain scope of work, and the government or charity follows up to ensure the work they are funding gets done. It’s basically the tried and true consulting model for subsidizing Open Source, but with a government (or non-profit) as the client.

Grant programs do not get us to sustainability as I define it:

Open Source sustainability is when any smart, motivated person can produce widely adopted Open Source software and get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

Grants are hoops.

The Restaurant Analogy

I’ve hit upon an analogy that I think clarifies our situation. It’s buried in “A Vision for Software Commons,” but there’s a lot going on there and I think this is a good enough idea to warrant its own post.

How should we think about the economics of Open Source? It’s not a grocery store, or a soup kitchen. It’s a restaurant.

Not a Grocery Store

Open Source is not a grocery store. At a grocery store (or pretty much any other store, but this analogy works best if we use food), you pay first, then you get to eat.

This is analogous to thinking of payments to Open Source projects in terms of ROI: what am I getting in the future for the money I am paying now? This doesn’t work, because you already used the software. You can pay for other things adjacent to the software—consulting, packaging, hosting, and so forth. These subsidize Open Source but do not directly sustain it. ROI as a mechanism depends on scarcity, and Open Source is essentially, intentionally non-scarce.

Not a Soup Kitchen

Open Source is not a soup kitchen. Payments to Open Source projects are not donations, they are not charity. They would be if someone else ate the meal, but you ate it.

Companies are by definition not geared towards making charitable donations. Yes, corporate philanthropy is a thing. It’s peanuts. I’m seeing maybe $25 billion/year, on a U.S. economy of $25 trillion a year. Open Source likely accounts for 100s of billions of this value and currently recoups 100s of millions (PDF). We need to grow Open Source income by several orders of magnitude. Calling it charity is a doomed approach. Fortunately, it’s also not accurate.

A Restaurant

Open Source is a restaurant. At a restaurant, you eat your meal first, and then you are expected to pay for it. Yes, we could dine and dash. But we don’t. When presented with a tab for a meal we have just eaten, we pay the tab.

Now picture a meal with a large group of friends. Inevitably, someone forgot their wallet—or “forgot” “their” “wallet.” The rest of the group has to pick up their share. Sometimes, one person gets stuck with the whole tab.

Our companies are sitting around the table. Open Source is the meal we consume year after year. We need to split the check. Be careful here: I’m not saying we should tip Open Source projects. I’m saying we should pay our bill. If some companies want to tip extra, more power to them.

Residential ⇒ Commercial ⇒ Collective

Hobby projects are akin to residential kitchens. Mounting expectations such as CRA and EO 14028 are akin to OSHA inspections. We need Open Source foundations to become commercial kitchens, as it were, fit to deliver at scale. At the same time, we need foundations to find ways of funding individuals that fit the Open Source ethos of collaborative autonomy. If Open Source is to be a restaurant, let it be the Moosewood Collective.

A New Bucket

Companies already have a few big buckets that make sense to them to account for money they spend:

We need a new bucket:

Look, don’t get me wrong. This is a huge honkin’ deal. We’re essentially asking our corporations to become a little teensy tiny bit less sociopathic than they currently by nature are. Everything is against us. There’s no way this could possibly work. Unless enough of us collectively want it to work.

I want it to work.