Wednesday 3 December 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn
Recently, I was forwarded an email from an executive at a 501(c)(6) trade
association. In answering a question about accepting small donations for
an “Open Source” project through their organization, the Trade
Association Executive responded
Accepting [small] donations [from
individuals] is possible, but [is] generally not a sustainable way to raise
funds for a project based on our experience. It's extremely
difficult … to raise any meaningful or reliable amounts.
I was aghast, but not surprised. The current Zeitgeist of the broader Open Source and Free Software community incubated his disturbing mindset. Our community suffers now from regular and active cooption by for-profit interests. The Trade Association Executive's fundraising claim — which probably even bears true in their subset of the community — shows the primary mechanism of cooption: encourage funding only from a few, big sources so they can slowly but surely dictate project policy.
Today, more revenue than ever goes to the development of code released under licenses that respect software freedom. That belabored sentence contains the key subtlety: most Free Software communities are not receiving more funding than before, in fact, they're probably receiving less. Instead, Open Source became a fad, and now it's “cool” for for-profit companies to release code, or channel funds through some trade associations to get the code they want written and released. This problem is actually much worse than traditional open-washing. I'd call this for-profit cooption its own subtle open-washing: picking a seemingly acceptable license for the software, but “engineering” the “community” as a proxy group controlled by for-profit interests.
This cooption phenomenon leaves the community-oriented efforts of Free Software charities underfunded and (quite often) under attack. These same companies that fund plenty of Open Source development also often oppose copyleft. Meanwhile, the majority of Free Software projects that predate the “Open Source Boom” didn't rise to worldwide fame and discover a funding bonanza. Such less famous projects still struggle financially for the very basics. For example, I participate in email threads nearly every day with Conservancy member projects who are just trying to figure out how to fund developers to a conference to give a talk about their project.
Thus, a sad kernel of truth hides in the Trade Association Executive's otherwise inaccurate statement: big corporate donations buy influence, and a few of our traditionally community-oriented Free Software projects have been “bought” in various ways with this influx of cash. The trade associations seek to facilitate more of this. Unless we change our behavior, the larger Open Source and Free Software community may soon look much like the political system in the USA: where a few lobbyist-like organizations control the key decision-making through funding. In such a structure, who will stand up for those developers who prefer copyleft? Who will make sure individual developers receive the organizational infrastructure they need? In short, who will put the needs of individual developers and users ahead of for-profit companies?
The answer is simple: non-profit 501(c)(3) charities in our community. These organizations that are required by IRS regulation to pass a public support test, which means they must seek large portions of their revenue from individuals in the general public and not receive too much from any small group of sources. Our society charges these organizations with the difficult but attainable tasks of (a) answering to the general public, and never for-profit corporate donors, and (b) funding the organization via mechanisms appropriate to that charge. The best part is that you, the individual, have the strongest say in reaching those goals.
Those who favor for-profit corporate control of “Open Source” projects will always insist that Free Software initiatives and plans just cannot be funded effectively via small, individual donations. Please, for the sake of software freedom, help us prove them wrong. There's even an easy way that you can do that. For just $10 a month, you can join the Conservancy Supporter program. You can help Conservancy stand up for Free Software projects who seek to keep project control in the hands of developers and users.
Of course, I realize you might not like my work at Conservancy. If you don't, then give to the FSF instead. If you don't like Conservancy nor the FSF, then give to the GNOME Foundation. Just pick the 501(c)(3) non-profit charity in the Free Software community that you like best and donate. The future of software freedom depends on it.
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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.
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