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Discussion on: Open Source Sustainability

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John Colagioia

The big problem I see in the (important, no matter how pessimistic I sound) conversation around Open Source Sustainability is the "build it and they will come" mentality, the idea that, if we write useful code and make it available under licenses that allow big companies to yank it behind a paywall, they're going to finally realize their obligation to the community and Open Source developers around the world will be sitting on fortunes for their altruism.

The reality is that the big companies might hire a couple of developers to get what they want without training someone on their team. But after thirty years of explaining to lawyers that the BSD/MIT-type licenses mean that they can pretend their programmers wrote the code and not need to issue a purchase order, they're not going to spend money on software everybody can get for free.

That's one of the reasons I've become a copyleft hard-liner, even though I'm not producing anything important: If you want to pretend the code is yours or if you want to make changes that don't get pushed back to me, you need to negotiate with me for your own license. Otherwise, you're constrained by the AGPL, because I'm not interested in working for Apple without a salary...and probably not with a salary, either.

I keep wondering, though, if the flaw in "sustainability" is in assuming that it needs to focus on money. Don't get me wrong. Money is important to things like not starving. But in insisting that a sustainable system is a well-funded system where people quit their jobs, it seems like people are just creating companies that require design, marketing, sales, support, and accounting, leading the founders to burn out from the strain of trying to get money from other Open Source projects (the most likely entities to appreciate the work) to, in part, pay other Open Source projects.

I don't know. It often feels like we confuse hobbyist Open Source with "follow your dreams (and live off your savings)" Open Source and (worse) commodify your complements Open Source, and the result is a twisted mess where people are trying to figure out what's stopping the Big Five (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) from showering us all with money, since they all love Open Source.

Unfortunately, I don't have any legitimate solutions, beyond the deeply unsatisfying, "get a job, Hippie" accidentally implied by my rambling...