Open source sustainability is a 🌎 debate

bureado profile image José Miguel Parrella ・3 min read

For the past decade, I've received a daily ping with open source news coverage. It's a lot. One minute I'm reading a Reddit thread on distros, then LWN coverage on Python 2.7 or a Jepsen report on a new product when SJVN tweets a new ZDNet article on corporate contributions.

This coverage is, almost always, written in English by and for US audiences. At first glance, this seems inconsequential as anyone that started with open source in non-English speaking countries two decades ago made do even with the sorry state of documentation, i18 and l10n back then.

But during the second half of 2018, as the debate dug deeper into open source sustainability (a broad collection of issues including licensing, business models, ethics, diversity & inclusion, etc.) it became apparent that the premises and analysis could use a global perspective.

Earlier this year I set about testing whether there is a homogeneous understanding of the underlying concepts of this debate.

I interviewed a couple dozen open source influencers and community leaders from around the globe, and shared my findings at the Open Source Leadership Summit.

My goal was not to test or even find the answers. For that, the sample needs to be several orders of magnitude larger. My goal was to test the questions.

A key takeaway was that even the words don't translate well. What do "income inequality", "wealth redistribution", "freeloading", "loss-leader", "strip mining" or "sustainability" translate to in Arabic, French or Spanish? It's "free" vs. "gratis" all over again! On top of that, many discussions assume a finance/economics background which in turn is a reflection of the VC-driven reality of open source in the US.

I wondered how much weight non-US influencers put on themes such as open source licensing or business models compared to income inequality or survival of the maintainer. Maybe the quality of VC funding isn't a big concern simply because it isn't available to begin with, but do non-US audiences place any weight on the role of freeloaders or the age differences between contributors? I discovered my Twitter network polled in a very different way than my non-US friends.

I also wanted to understand whether some of the prevailing models such as open source foundations or codes of conduct met the expectations of this group. Was this a classical hammer ergo nail situation? I wondered what people that agree open source has an income inequality problem believe about the role of foundations and competition: if I strongly believe in only one problem do I also believe in only one "savior"?

In the US and other developed markets, there's been no shortage of proposed solutions to the components of the sustainability problem, from new licenses, subscription models, distributed funding, foundations, etc.

But are those solutions enforceable or viable outside of the US? Are there any discussion forums for this problem south of the equator? Can a distributed funding model disburse funds in countries like Egypt? What about Nepal, or Venezuela? (all in the Top 10 for largest public GitHub org growth)

There are areas where I plan to research more, including in the role of government and regulators. My upbringing in the open source world had a lot of this, back in the OpenXML and open source legislation days south of the equator, and I wonder how that has evolved in a cloud world.

Possibly the most sobering takeaway for me was that when talking to non-US audiences, it seems impossible to talk about project sustainability without talking about maintainer survival. And whether that meant monetarily or from a recognition standpoint, lots of verbatims pointed out to expectations for the project health to sustain the individual developer's life.

Nowadays, most project leaders understand that they need to listen to and care for a global audience if they want their project to achieve global scale: there are more GitHub contributors outside of the US than in the US and this gap continues to increase every year.

Similarly, I believe open source thought leaders addressing questions of open source sustainability need to bring this discussion to a global audience.

If you have a sample you'd like to poll on this topic, check out the resources from my talk. I would love to hear your findings or chat with you on this topic, so feel free to reach out on Twitter or elsewhere!

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José Miguel Parrella


Yet another open source enthusiast in Redmond


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lots of verbatims pointed out to expectations for the project health to sustain the individual developer's life.

Sorry, but in all seriousness, could somebody translate that into... like... non-business-jargonese? I can't even unpack what it's meant to be saying.


It means many people that left a comment wrote something along the lines of: "[open source sustainability means] the possibility to contribute to open source software development while my life expectatives are assured" (all verbatims were captured in English which wasn't the native language of most respondents)


Ah, thanks! That's... clearer.

(Verbatim is a noun, now? When did that happen?)

It might very well be an abuse of the language in market research (appreciate you pointing it out!) methods.sagepub.com/reference/ency...


Open source should JUST EXIST. It should be organic and non-opinionated. I don't see the point of talking about open source sustainability... It's Just working and growing for decades without the needing of people saying what should and what shouldn't.


Yes, some folks in the non-US sample (and, anecdotally, even some in my US network) have raised this argument - something along the lines of the infallibility of open source as demonstrated by its continuous multi-decade existence despite the absence of cloud computing or VC funding through most of its history.