Are Open Source Developers Being Underfunded and Exploited?

Donation-based open source programmer Andre Staltz recently collected data from GitHub, Patreon, and OpenCollective to try to calculate how much money is being donated to popular projects.

The results? Out of 58 projects checked, “there were two clearly sustainable open source projects, but the majority (more than 80%) of projects that we usually consider sustainable are actually receiving income below industry standards or even below the poverty threshold.”

More than 50% of projects are red: they cannot sustain their maintainers above the poverty line. 31% of the projects are orange, consisting of developers willing to work for a salary that would be considered unacceptable in our industry. 12% are green, and only 3% are blue: Webpack and Vue.js… The median donation per year is $217, which is substantial when understood on an individual level, but in reality includes sponsorship from companies that are doing this also for their own marketing purposes…

The total amount of money being put into open source is not enough for all the maintainers. If we add up all of the yearly revenue from those projects in this data set, it’s $2.5 million. The median salary is approximately $9k, which is below the poverty line. If split up that money evenly, that’s roughly $22k, which is still below industry standards. The core problem is not that open source projects are not sharing the money received. The problem is that, in total numbers, open source is not getting enough money…

GitHub was bought by Microsoft for $7.5 billion. To make that quantity easier to grok, the amount of money Microsoft paid to acquire GitHub — the company — is more than 3000x what the open source community is getting yearly. In other words, if the open source community saved up every penny of the money they ever received, after a couple thousand years they could perhaps have enough money to buy GitHub jointly… If Microsoft GitHub is serious about helping fund open source, they should put their money where their mouth is: donate at least $1 billion to open source projects. Even a mere $1.5 million per year would be enough to make all the projects in this study become green.

The article suggests concrete actions to stop this “exploitation,” including donating to open source projects, as well as more scrutiny of how well open source projects are funded, and “pressuring Microsoft to donate millions to open source projects.” It also suggests considering alternative licenses for new projects, and unionizing.

But Chris Aniszczyk, the CTO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, responded on Twitter that the donation-based approach is “a path to ruin for sustainability… you solve this problem by having companies hire folks or help maintainers build businesses around their projects… let’s not turn open source into a gig economy and demand more of companies instead.”

So what do Slashdot’s readers think? Are open source developers being underfunded and exploited? And if so — what’s the solution?

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