The egalitarian spirit of the open source community might be starting to fray as individual developers begin to question who is really benefiting most from their efforts.
A survey of 4,440 developers who actively participated in open source projects in 2020 finds more than half (54%) of respondents said they feel that individuals should be paid for their contributions to open source projects. The report, conducted by DigitalOcean, a cloud service provider, finds only 14% of respondents are currently paid for their contributions.
Developer opinions vary, depending on age group, about whether individuals should be paid for their contributions to open source, with those between the ages of 18-25 being more likely to be in favor (60%), while only 34% of those aged 55 or above agreed.
“A lot more people want to be compensated,” said Raman Sharma, vice president of product marketing for DigitalOcean. “That may mean there will be a need for more sponsorships by vendors.”
The DigitalOcean report arrives just after Elastic announced it is changing the licensing terms under which it makes Elasticsearch available. Elastic is shifting away from an Apache license to a dual license strategy that includes a server-side public license, or SSPL, along with a proprietary Elastic license. That shift was made to help ensure more of the revenue generated by Elasticsearch winds up in the hands of Elastic rather than cloud service providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), that routinely launch paid services based on open source code. AWS responded to the Elastic move by announcing plans to fork Elasticsearch code that it will now curate.
Nearly half of respondents (47%) to the DigitalOcean survey said they think technology companies should fund the payment of open source contributions, while a quarter (25%) believe project owners or individuals should pay.
Discontent among startup vendors has been building for months. Startups typically are backed by venture capitalists, and make their software available as open source code in an effort to build a customer base on the strength of their support services. Cloud service providers have discovered they can take the code these vendors create to launch their own service. Those cloud service providers may contribute code to the project, but the startup vendor doesn’t typically enjoy any of the economic benefits.
In most cases, the open source code used by the cloud service provider comes from a small cadre of developers that work for the startup company. Most of those startup companies are hoping to build a community around their code that includes individual contributors, external to the company, to help defray those costs. In fact, that business model has contributed to open source projects’ role as one of the primary drivers of IT innovation in recent years. If more independent developers demand to be paid for those efforts, the innovation rate of open source projects is likely to slow. The labor required to support those projects simply won’t be as freely available.
In contrast, massive open source projects, such as Linux, have already reached a level of sustainability that other projects can only dream of. The Linux community is still ruled by Linus Torvalds, who some say is something of a benevolent dictator. Many of the contributors to Linux, however, are full-time employees working for vendors like IBM and SAP, which have a vested interest in the underlying open source platform.
In contrast to the Linux community’s approach, the Eclipse Foundation, The Open Infrastructure Foundation (formerly the OpenStack Foundation), the Apache Software Foundation and the various arms of the Linux Foundation have stepped in to provide some level of independent governance for a wide range of open source initiatives, with mixed success. The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), for example, as an arm of the Linux Foundation, has played a major role in spurring Kubernetes adoption. However, Google recently spurned the CNCF when it decided to create its own steering committee to oversee development of the Istio service mesh.
Despite all the internecine rivalries and the potential for more forking of open source projects, overall, these projects are still viewed favorably. A survey of 3,400 developers, conducted by O’Reilly Media on behalf of IBM, finds 94% of respondents said they rate open source software (OSS) as equal to or better than proprietary software. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65%) also agreed that contributions to open source projects impress potential employers and result in better professional opportunities.
Of course, one of the primary reasons so many developers prefer open source is that there is no purchasing process for them to navigate.
“Developers can move faster,” said Todd Moore, vice president for open source at IBM. “Programmers can move at the speed of light.”
Regardless of motivation, it’s clear open source software isn’t going away. However, how it is built and exactly what is permissible under an open source license may soon vary much more widely from one project to the next.