Originally Published: Friday, 7 April 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Money and Free Software

Commercial involvement in a free software project, however, is a difficult problem. Introducing money and monetary concerns into a project that was at one point completely volunteer-based is something that must be done very delicately, if at all.

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The phenomenal success of free software to date has created a unique situation in which people are attempting to cynically "cash in" on its rampant and undeniable success. The more opportunistic of the bunch take their products, stamp "open source" on the cover, and re-release them; some of the more enlightened release their products' source code under true free licensing, and some release the software and actively support its development.

Commercial involvement in a free software project, however, is a difficult problem. Introducing money and monetary concerns into a project that was at one point completely volunteer-based is something that must be done very delicately, if at all. The concerns of the classic free software project are typically very different than the concerns of a project that requires financial motivation. Often, when money gets involved in a free project, some very dangerous things happen: divisions form, people get frustrated more easily, the turnover rate is increased -- and the project suffers because of it.

As an example of such things, I would like to humbly submit Linux.com as an example of what can happen to free software projects when money gets involved to a substantial degree. Linux.com encompasses a very diverse sampling of people, doing a very diverse subset of activities required to keep the Web site running: writers, coders, evangelists, artists, and maintainers must work together in an environment of at least token mutual respect.

The issue of money, however, has come up many times with Linux.com: concerns of editorial freedom, worries about people getting "justly rewarded" for their work, and so on.

First, however, I must explain something about the current structure of Linux.com. The organisational structure has evolved into three social "hierarchies" at present. First, we have the paid staff: those people paid by VA to work on Linux.com, some full-time, some part-time. These people have, from the beginning, assumed as a necessity leadership positions: pushing forward site development, recruiting volunteers, attempting to get assistance, putting together partnerships, and so on. As individuals and as a group, they are uniformly reasonable people, dedicated to their work and well-intentioned. To date their efforts have been nothing short of exemplary, and Linux.com would not be where they are today.

The second major strata is of the unpaid persons who put in a lot of work towards Linux.com. They are motivated for various reasons, including pure altruism, the desire to gain name recognition or experience for a "Real Job," or a simple desire to be part of the diverse community that is Linux.com. These are also dedicated people, who do a very large percentage of the daily maintenance and contributions that make Linux.com work from day to day.

The final major level of organisation within Linux.com is composed of the casual contributors, who for various reasons make a contribution or association with the site. The attraction of an @linux.com email address, perhaps, or with a desire to contribute an article or tip at one point, these people significantly overlap with the audience of Linux.com itself. Persons commenting on our articles or submitting to the jobs database or adding tips to the tuneup section are loosely part of this very large group.

Now that we have a general idea of the socio-political structure of the Linux.com community, we have to look at some of the consequences that this stratification has had, and contrast it with more typical free software projects (which are admittedly designed for a more narrow purpose than the large-scope project that is Linux.com, but nevertheless provide a good sample to work from).

The fact that we have a core group of paid staffers is the single largest difference from a conventional free project. In a typical free project, the core group is composed of people who have invested significant effort in seeing a program work, who have worked without the distraction of pandering to an employer to put together a project. This difference has a number of effects: because the core group is paid, it is assumed that they have a "right" to be part of that social core group by the simple merit of being paid to do their work. Where typical free software projects will over time weed out the people who don't get along with other people, Linux.com doesn't have that luxury - people who start out in the core group of paid staffers remain in that paid group more or less indefinitely. This elitist tendency creates a strain among the third strata especially, as potential volunteers are put off by the impossibility of taking a major role in the administration of Linux.com. Those roles have been taken over with virtually no chance of "retirement" by the staffers -- thus removing a major motivation for volunteering, that of name recognition for your work.

Ironically, the elitist tendencies of a core group of paid workers on a free software project seem to create an interesting effect among the volunteers who contribute regular and significant work towards the project. For instance, a number of regular contributors have been offered, several times, the vague promise that they may eventually get paid for the work that they do. This is a good sentiment, but to many people, it is somewhat patronising and insulting; it implies that dangling a cash carrot in front of people is a good way to extract work from them.

Paid staffers tend to treat volunteers as they would treat employees: setting deadlines, giving orders, requiring work to be turned out steadily and readily. This creates a high degree of frustration in new and current volunteers, contributing to a high turnover rate. In turn, this destroys any sense of continuing community that might develop over a given project.

Contributing to this loss of a sense of community is the fact that core paid members of a group are there to do work that they may or may not want to do, something that is taken for granted in a given free software project. With a free software project, if you do it, you must want to do it. However, in a project where a significant proportion of contributors are paid to do so, it seems as if that core group tends to shun potential additions to that core group, retarding the development of a culture in favour of a more practical, business-like environment preferred.

Dedication to a project in which money is involved is also called in to question. For the paid staffers, their work may or may not be "just another job." This attitude can infect other people in the project who may be working from different motivations. Motivations can shift drastically as people subconsciously, whether justified or not, do work to justify their salary from their employer.

Free software projects currently thrive on their own without financial "assistance," and that sponsorship may well prove the death for a small number of them. If it is done, as some companies (including VA Linux Systems, the main sponsor of Linux.com) intend to do, it must be done carefully and with a ready eye for potential problems.

Rob Bos, rbos@linux.com, is a student at Simon Fraser University and has a paper due in thirty-six hours. He intends to spend the next thirty of them slacking.

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