Earning Money in Open Source

Dru Lavigne posted on her BLOG about a recent cartoon that had the caption "We've decided to make all our products open source, and replace everyone's salary with tip jars."

That actually touches on one of the great mysteries of Open Source: exactly how does one become immersed in Open Source and still pay the bills on time?

When I first saw the cartoon I commented in the GOSLING Ottawa forum:

I know it's humour, but it doesn't quite get it. Tip jars are yet another post-payment system which fails for many of the same reasons that monopoly rents do, while most successful FLOSS business models are in some way pre-payment or salary (for the developers...).

I will follow Dru's lead and give some details of how I make money. Not all of my work involves authoring software at all, such as the work I do on public policy.

For software I use what I call the "95% solution" model. What the customer wants may be 95% solved by existing FLOSS software, and I am then hired to fill in the remaining 5%. I do so on the condition that the knowledge that I generate for this customer will also be released as FLOSS such that the public pool of FLOSS is that much closer to solving 95% of some future customer.

To customers I explain that I do not offer them products, but that I offer them a service. I am their liaison into an international software development process, and should be seen as representing their interests in this larger process in the same way that a lawyer is their advocate in the legal process. When a lawyer makes an argument on behalf of a client in court, the results are part of the public pool of knowledge we call court transcripts and precedent.

I always like to slide the reference to the lawyer in there as most people know very well that lawyers do not work for tips. The results of their work is as much a part of the commons as the work of a FLOSS developer, with our court transcripts and precedent stored in various FLOSS software repositories around the world.

I try to explain this situation to customers before I start to work for them. This avoids the confusion expressed in the cartoon . I need to ensure that the customer realize that I do not work for free even though I do not ever charge royalties for software. I am only going to be their advocate, whether writing software/policy or interacting with other software authors or policy makers, if I am adequately paid to do so.