Software Freedom Conservancy

Chasing Quick Fixes To Sustainability

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen M. Sandler on May 23, 2019

Various companies and trade associations have now launched their own tweak on answers to the question of “FOSS sustainability”. We commented in March on Linux Foundation's Community Bridge, and Bradley's talk at SCALE 2019 focused on this issue (video). Assuring that developers are funded to continue to maintain and improve FOSS is the focus of many organizations in our community, including charities like ourselves, the Free Software Foundation, the GNOME Foundation, Software in the Public Interest, and others.

Today, another for-profit company, GitHub, announced their sponsors program. We're glad that GitHub is taking seriously the issue of assuring that those doing the work in FOSS are financially supported. We hope that GitHub will ultimately facilitate charities as payees, so that Conservancy membership projects can benefit. We realize the program is in beta, but our overarching concern remains that the fundamental approach of this new program fails to address any of the major issues that have already been identified in FOSS sustainability.

Conservancy has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund FOSS developers over the course of our existence. We find that managing the community goverance, carefully negotating with communities about who will be paid, how paid workers interact with the unpaid volunteers, and otherwise managing and assuring that donor dollars are well spent to advance the project are the great challenges of FOSS sustainability. We realize that newcomers to this discussion (like GitHub and their parent company, Microsoft) may not be aware of these complex problems. We also have sympathy for their current approach: when Conservancy started, we too thought that merely putting up a donation button and routing payments was the primary and central activity to assure FOSS sustainability. We quickly discovered that those tasks are prerequisite, but alone are not sufficient to succeed.

Just as important is how the infrastructure is implemented. GitHub is a proprietary software platform for FOSS development, and their sponsors program implements more proprietary software on top of that proprietary platform. FOSS developers should have FOSS that helps them fund their work. Choosing FOSS instead of proprietary software is not always easy initially. Conservancy promotes free-as-in-freedom solutions like our Houdini project and other initiatives throughout our community. We are somewhat alarmed at the advent of so many entrants into the FOSS sustainability space that offer proprietary software and/or proprietary network services as a proposed solution. We hope that GitHub and others who have entered this space recently will collaborate with the existing community of charities who are already working on this problem and remain in search of long-term sustainable, FOSS-friendly solutions.

Tags: conservancy, FOSS Sustainability

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