Open source business plans are tough.  It’s hard to come up with a clear and comprehendable revenue model when you give so much of your work away for free.

But those of us who work in open source, must not forget that freedom is the at core of our model and that we must grant those freedoms on a non-discrimanatory basis. Recently I’ve seen several postings that make me concerned that some core principals are being forgotten.

Firstly LWN reported on the Linux Plumbers Conference, where the key-note from Greg Kroah-Hartman tried to shame Canonical for not contributing enough kernel patches back from their work on ubuntu:

"there is the matter of redistributors who base their products on
another distributor’s work; these are distributors like Ubuntu or CentOS.
There are no contributions back to the community from that kind of
distributor at all. They are not functioning as a part of the Linux

Then Rod Johnson blog on springsofts maintenance describes the ideal open source business model as:

"If you are an organization deriving tremendous value from Spring by
using it in large production environments, please send SpringSource a
check for 1% of the value you are receiving by using Spring. We will
use this money to pay salaries, grow our investment in open source and
return a profit."

Another example of this thinking comes from the blog of Jack Slocum from Ext.js:

"Ext JS 1.0 is released under the LGPL, minus the Assets license as
mentioned above. Shortly thereafter 2 major publicly traded
corporations (names withheld) embedded Ext JS into their development
frameworks. With no mention of Ext JS except in credits files that no
one ever saw. No support for all the work that had been put into the
framework. Neither one of them even contacted us. How can that be
possible? Can they do that?"

While I have some sympathy with Rod’s and Greg’s positions, I do believe they are forgetting something fundamental. The users of our Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) are free from any obligation to contribute back patches or cash. FOSS licenses don’t say "you are free to use this unless you are making money" and they don’t say "legally speaking your not obligated to contribute cash or code, but morally you really should".

What Greg Kroah-Hartman needs to remember, is that contributions are not just code or cash. Growing market share, educating users, finding new uses are all great contributions to an open source project.

What Rod is forgetting, is that spring software is now a free commodity, to be used without cost. The expensive valuable resource that  Springsoft should focus their marketing on is the clever people that created spring.

What Jack needs to realize is that major publicly traded corporations are unlikely to integrate closed source, proprietary licensed software into their core infrastructure if it it comes from a small operation without major support infrastructure.  My mother frequently asks: "why don’t you just charge $1 per month to all those hundreds of thousands of Jetty users?" and I realize that my mother has never tried to obtain a purchase order from a major publicly traded corporation.

At Webtide, we sell developer advice, custom development and production support for jetty and dojo cometd. We don’t expect our clients to buy our services because of some sort of guilt trip from the value they obtain from those projects. We expect our clients to pay for the value add that we give.  The software is free under the terms of the apache 2.0 license and we expect no charity or moral obligation in return.  But our developers are highly skilled, and if you want their advice, effort and/or experience directly applied to your commercial concerns, then you have to pay for that valuable resource.

I consider it a confirmation of the quality and value of the project when large corporations make it part of their infrastructure or ship product that contains it. I’m glad that many users can often succeed on their own without questions, or producing bug reports and/or fixes. It indicates that the project is doing a good job of well designing, implementing and documenting our software for those users. When Jetty users are profitable, we don’t see that as a lost revenue opportunity, but as a potential client who already should appreciate the value of the skills we have on offer.

You can’t be half free. For those struggling with open source business models, my (free) advice is to embrace the freedom that is fundamental to the success of your project and don’t resent the success of others who use the freedoms that you have granted. If you want to sell software, then don’t open it or get a job at Microsoft, IBM or Oracle.


Carlos Sanchez · 14/10/2008 at 00:48

I couldn’t agree more, sometimes people doing free software forget what implications it has. It’s a tough business to be in.
BTW the link to Jack Slocum blog is wrong.

Preston L. Bannister · 14/10/2008 at 06:05

You are selling service, not a product. The open source project is a means to acquire a reputation among a much wider group of folk than possible with the a closed source product.
At least that is how I hope it works. 🙂
FYI – the fonts on this web page are wonky (widely different sizes). Feel free to delete this last bit.

Anonymous · 14/10/2008 at 20:36

Taking without contributing at all is destructive. My local bank branch is 5 mins walk away. It has free coffee for customers. I am a customer. What happens if I no longer buy coffee at home but get all my coffee from the bank? What if I go a step further and sell the bank’s coffee in my coffee shop? Most likely, this will mean no more free coffee in the bank, for anyone. By your logic I didn’t do anything wrong. BUT I HAVE PRODUCED A BAD OUTCOME
“Everything free” might be a noble aim but how can it work in practice?
You fail to consider the practical implications of “take with no give.” The license change of extJS shows what harm this can do.

zentux · 15/10/2008 at 06:32

But those of us who work in open source, must not forget that freedom is the at core of our model and that we must grant those freedoms on a non-discrimanatory basis. Recently I’ve seen several postings that make me concerned that some core principals are being forgotten.

You are absolutely right. It seems that some FOSS hackers have forgotten the principals of GNU philosophy. It’s not just limited to US, but it’s true for all over the glob. I think a part of this problem is caused by the conflicts between Free and Open aspect of software.
All in all, this is a potential danger for both Free and Open source software.

Mik Kersten · 16/10/2008 at 05:20

I enjoyed this thoughtful post Greg, since I lead an open source project, Eclipse Mylyn, and the company behind it, Tasktop Technologies. I agree that the “guilt trip” approach doesn’t make much sense, and it’s good to hear that the service model is working for your company. We use both that and a mixed source model, where we charge for a commercial version that provides value add. My point of view on is that there are different models that work for supporting both open source communities and commercial adoption. If you have a bit of time on your hands you can read a long-winded interview about the mixed open and commercial ecosystem around Eclipse and Mylyn and the EPL. I’m also be very interested in your thoughts on my recent blog post that has an objection to the notion that open source software can be used without cost.

Comments are closed.