Is getting paid to write open source a privilege? Yes and no

Commentary: While we tend to think of open source as a community endeavor, at its heart open source is inherently selfish, whether as a contributor or user.

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Image: SIphotography, Getty Images/iStockphoto

"[O]ften [a] great deal of privilege is needed to be able to dedicate one's efforts to building Free Software full time," declared Matt Wilson, a longtime contributor to open source projects like Linux. He's right. While there are generally no legal hurdles for a would-be contributor to clear, there are much more pragmatic constraints like, for example, rent. While many developers might prefer to spend all of their time writing and releasing open source software, comparatively few can afford to do so or, at least, on a full-time basis.

And that's OK. Because maybe, just maybe, "privilege" implies the wrong thing about open source software.

Millions making millions

Who are these developers privileged to get to write open source software? According to GitHub COO Erica Brescia, 80% of the developers actively contributing to open source GitHub repositories come from outside the US. Of course, the vast majority of these developers aren't contributing full-time. According to an IDC analysis, of the roughly 24.2 million global developers, roughly half (12.5 million) get paid to write software full-time, while another seven million get paid to write software part-time.

But this doesn't mean they're getting paid to write open source software, whether full-time or part-time. 

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (TechRepublic Premium)

If there are 12.5 million paid full-time developers globally, a small percentage of that number gets paid to write open source software. There simply aren't that many companies that clearly see a return on open source investments. Using open source? Of course. Contributing to open source? Not so much. This is something Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst called out as a problem over 10 years ago. It remains a problem.

As for individual developers like osxfuse maintainer Benjamin Fleischer, it's a persistent struggle to figure out how to get paid for the valuable work they do. Going back to Wilson's point, most developers simply don't get to enjoy the privilege of spending their time giving away software. 

Is this a bad thing?

There need not be a free lunch

When I asked if full-time open source is an activity only the rich (individuals or companies) can indulge, developer Henrik Ingo challenged the assumptions underlying my question. "Why should we expect anyone to contribute to open source in the first place?" he queried. Then he struck at the very core of the assumption that anyone should contribute to open source:

Some of us donate to charity, some others receive that gift. Some do both, at different phases in life, or even at the same time. Yet neither of those roles makes us a better person than the other. With open source, the idea is that we share an abundant resource. If you go back to Cathedral and Bazaar, the idea of "scratch your own itch" is prevalent. You write a tool, or fix an existing one, because you needed it. Or you write code to learn. Or just social reasons! Whatever your reasons, nobody should be expected to contribute code as some kind of tax you have to pay to justify your existence on this planet.

Open source, in other words, is inherently self-interested, and that self-interest brings its own rewards. Sometimes unpaid work becomes paid work, as was the case with Andy Oliver. Sometimes it doesn't. If the work is fulfilling in and of itself, it may not matter whether that developer ever gets the "privilege" to spend all of her time getting paid to write open source software. It also may not matter whether that software is open source or closed. 

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

To Ingo's point, we may need to stop trying to impose ethical obligations on software developers and users, whether open source or not. I personally think more open source tends toward more good and, frankly, more realization of self-interest, because it can be a great way to share the development load. For downstream users, contributing back can be a great way to minimize the accumulation of technical debt that can collect on a fork. 

But in any case, there isn't a compelling reason to browbeat others into contributing. Open source is inherently self-interested, to Ingo's point, whether as a user or contributor. When I use open source software, I benefit. When I contribute, I benefit. Either way, I (and we) am privileged.

Disclaimer: I work at AWS but nothing herein is intended to relate to AWS.

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