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Going Dark


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

A few weeks ago, I heard about yet another Free Software project that nearly literally went dark. Theo de Raadt, the OpenBSD project leader, posted a desperate message to the developers mailing list stating the project did not have enough cash in its coffers to pay for the 2013 electricity bill. The amount due was more than US$ 20,000 and was needed immediately just to keep the lights on and the servers running.

Fortunately, de Raadt's post led to a landslide of donations, and private donors, including a Romanian Bitcoin tycoon, saved OpenBSD from extinction. Today, the project is more than US$ 100,000 in the black and will have enough cash to spare to organize events, seminars, and pay their bills.

Yay! Right?

No so fast. It is becoming more and more evident that the financing model (if such a thing exists) for independent Free Software projects is not sustainable. In 2013, Kdenlive, Puppy Linux, and several other medium-to-high profile projects were on the verge of closing due to lack of funds and/or resources and developers (which is exactly the same thing). Surprisingly, the parroting of the tired mantra "Free as in Freedom, not beer" in mailing lists and blog comments did little to stimulate users to financially help these struggling free software projects.

What to do? Some projects land themselves a corporate gig. Fedora and, recently, CentOS got themselves sponsored by Red Hat. Kubuntu was under the wing of Canonical for the first years of its existence. Then, Mark Shuttleworth's company withdrew support, and the KDE flavor of Ubuntu was on the brink of disappearing. Fortunately, another sponsor stepped in and saved the day.

But, even if your project attracts a company with deep pockets, corporate sponsorship is a mixed blessing. The sponsored project often will have to sacrifice its independence and bend to the whims of what, to all effects, are its new overlords. If the project has a governing body, the company footing the bill will want at least one of its staff on the board and will want to steer the project wherever the firm wants it to go, regardless of the original aims of the project's creators.

Very few projects (the Linux kernel for one) manage the balancing act of having several similarly powerful companies with different, often opposing, aims funding them simultaneously. When this does happen, competing firms give both money and resources, and they also keep a wary eye on each other so nobody abuses their post. This gives the developers some degree of uneasy freedom, at least as long as an equilibrium is maintained. But, this situation is rare and only available to projects that have some sort of universal commercial appeal. Not all useful software fits the bill.

The public sector provides another potential source of funding. But, as with corporate sponsorship, political aims often do not align with the original aims of the project. Even personal ideologies of the developers can sabotage government funding. OpenBSD lost sponsorship for an event from the US military when de Raadt publicly criticized the invasion of Iraq. Changes in regional governments in Spain after elections have killed many open source projects. And then, there's the bureaucracy…

The last source of revenue can come from users themselves. Having users give to projects in principle seems like a good idea: You make everybody who donates a stakeholder in the project's success, you cut out the middle man, you establish a dialogue with your users, yadda yadda yadda.

Donation buttons, however, are massively ignored by users, and there are only so many Kickstarter campaigns you can run before backers get bored (plus crowdfunding, I can tell you from experience, is a full-time job). Flattr and the like offer alternative ways to easily finance projects; but, looking back at 2013, it doesn't seem like any of the above have worked all that well.

I am not sure what the solution is. I also doubt it's just one thing. I am sure that it won't be some magical formula that will solve a struggling project's problems overnight. My gut feeling is that it will be something more long-term and will involve educating users and developers. Users must learn to show their appreciation with their wallets to some degree. And, at the same time, the Free Software community can't fall into the trap of blocking less wealthy users as proprietary software does.

Project leaders also must learn to spend a little time away from coding and instead work on and publish their accounts so that they, or others, can see if they are heading for trouble. A crash course on "How to explain your project" to help users understand what they're all about, and hence understand why giving is a good idea, wouldn't be bad either.

I am aware of the main pitfall: Many developers start Free Software projects precisely because they don't want to do any of the above, but when an app starts to grow and a community grows around it, surely they must assume a certain degree of organizational responsibility? However, nobody can force anybody to do what they don't want to, especially if they are not signing their paychecks.

But that is exactly the point.

If you have any good ideas on how free software projects can solve their financing problems, please write to me, Paul Brown, at and we'll talk about it.

Paul C. Brown

Editor in Chief

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