Paying Maintainers isn’t a Magic Bullet

Over the last few years it’s become popular to suggest that open source maintainers should be paid. There are a couple of stated motivations for this, one being that it would improve the security and reliability of the ecosystem (pioneered by several companies like Tidelift) and the others contending that it would be a solution to the maintainer burnout and finally that it would solve the open source free rider problem. The purpose of this blog is to examine each of these in turn to seeing if paying maintainers actually would solve the problem (or, for some, does the problem even exist in the first place).

Free Riders

The free rider problem is simply expressed: There’s a class of corporations which consume open source, for free, as the foundation of their profits but don’t give back enough of their allegedly ill gotten gains. In fact, a version of this problem is as old as time: the “workers” don’t get paid enough (or at all) by the “bosses”; greedy people disproportionately exploit the free but limited resources of the planet. Open Source is uniquely vulnerable to this problem because of the free (as in beer) nature of the software: people who don’t have to pay for something often don’t. Part of the problem also comes from the general philosophy of open source which tries to explain that it’s free (as in freedom) which matters not free (as in beer) and everyone, both producers and consumers should care about the former. In fact, in economic terms, the biggest impact open source has had on industry is from the free (as in beer) effect.

Open Source as a Destroyer of Market Value

Open Source is often portrayed as a “disrupter” of the market, but it’s not often appreciated that a huge part of that disruption is value destruction. Consider one of the older Open Source systems: Linux. As an operating system (when coupled with GNU or other user space software) it competed in the early days with proprietary UNIX. However, it’s impossible to maintain your margin competing against free and the net result was that one by one the existing players were forced out of the market or refocussed on other offerings and now, other than for historical or niche markets, there’s really no proprietary UNIX maker left … essentially the value contained within the OS market was destroyed. This value destruction effect was exploited brilliantly by Google with Android: to enter and disrupt an existing lucrative smart phone market, created and owned by Apple, with a free OS based on Open Source successfully created a load of undercutting handset manufacturers eager to be cheaper than Apple who went on to carve out an 80% market share. Here, the value isn’t completely destroyed, but it has significantly reduced (smart phones going from a huge margin business to a medium to low margin one).

All of this value destruction is achieved by the free (as in beer) effect of open source: the innovator who uses it doesn’t have to pay the full economic cost for developing everything from scratch, they just have to pay the innovation expense of adapting it (such adaptation being made far easier by access to the source code). This effect is also the reason why Microsoft and other companies railed about Open Source being a cancer on intellectual property: because it is1. However, this view is also the product of rigid and incorrect thinking: by destroying value in existing markets, open source presents far more varied and unique opportunities in newly created ones. The cardinal economic benefit of value destruction is that it lowers the barrier to entry (as Google demonstrated with Android) thus opening the market up to new and varied competition (or turning monopoly markets into competitive ones).

Envy isn’t a Good Look

If you follow the above, you’ll see the supposed “free rider” problem is simply a natural consequence of open source being free as in beer (someone is creating a market out of the thing you offered for free precisely because they didn’t have to pay for it): it’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a consequence to be embraced and exploited (if you’re clever enough). Not all of us possess the business acumen to exploit market opportunities like this, but if you don’t, envying those who do definitely won’t cause your quality of life to improve.

The bottom line is that having a mechanism to pay maintainers isn’t going to do anything about this supposed “free rider” problem because the companies that exploit open source and don’t give back have no motivation to use it.

Maintainer Burnout

This has become a hot topic over recent years with many blog posts and support groups devoted to it. From my observation it seems to matter what kind of maintainer you are: If you only have hobby projects you maintain on an as time becomes available basis, it seems the chances of burn out isn’t high. On the other hand, if you’re effectively a full time Maintainer, burn out becomes a distinct possibility. I should point out I’m the former not the latter type of maintainer, so this is observation not experience, but it does seem to me that burn out at any job (not just that of a Maintainer) seems to happen when delivery expectations exceed your ability to deliver and you start to get depressed about the ever increasing backlog and vocal complaints. In industry when someone starts to burn out, the usual way of rectifying it is either lighten the load or provide assistance. I have noticed that full time Maintainers are remarkably reluctant to give up projects (presumably because each one is part of their core value), so helping with tooling to decrease the load is about the only possible intervention here.

As an aside about tooling, from parallels with Industry, although tools correctly used can provide useful assistance, there are sure fire ways to increase the possibility of burn out with inappropriate demands:

It does strike me that some of our much venerated open source systems, like github, have some of these same management anti-patterns, like encouraging Maintainers to chase repository stars to show value, having a daily reminder of outstanding PRs and Issues, showing everyone who visits your home page your contribution records for every project over the last year.

To get back to the main point, again by parallel with Industry, paying people more doesn’t decrease industrial burn out; it may produce a temporary feel good high, but the backlog pile eventually overcomes this. If someone is already working at full stretch at something they want to do giving them more money isn’t going to make them stretch further. For hobby maintainers like me, even if you could find a way to pay me that my current employer wouldn’t object to, I’m already devoting as much time as I can spare to my Maintainer projects, so I’m unlikely to find more (although I’m not going to refuse free money …).

Security and Reliability

Everyone wants Maintainers to code securely and reliably and also to respond to bug reports within a fixed SLA. Obviously usual open source Maintainers are already trying to code securely and reliably and aren’t going to do the SLA thing because they don’t have to (as the licence says “NO WARRANTY …”), so paying them won’t improve the former and if they’re already devoting all the time they can to Maintenance, it won’t achieve the latter either. So how could Security and Reliability be improved? All a maintainer can really do is keep current with current coding techniques (when was the last time someone offered a free course to Maintainers to help with this?). Suggesting to a project that if they truly believed in security they’d rewrite it in Rust from tens of thousands of lines of C really is annoying and unhelpful.

One of the key ways to keep software secure and reliable is to run checkers over the code and do extensive unit and integration testing. The great thing about this is that it can be done as a side project from the main Maintenance task provided someone triages and fixes the issues generated. This latter is key; simply dumping issue reports on an overloaded maintainer makes the overload problem worse and adds to a pile of things they might never get around to. So if you are thinking of providing checker or tester resources, please also think how any generated issues might get resolved without generating more work for a Maintainer.

Business Models around Security and Reliability

A pretty old business model for code checking and testing is to have a distribution do it. The good ones tend to send patches upstream and their business model is to sell the software (or at least a support licence to it) which gives the recipients a SLA as well. So what’s the problem? Mainly the economics of this tried and trusted model. Firstly what you want supported must be shipped by a distribution, which means it must have a big enough audience for a distribution to consider it a fairly essential item. Secondly you end up paying a per instance use cost that’s an average of everything the distribution ships. The main killer is this per instance cost, particularly if you are a hyperscaler, so it’s no wonder there’s a lot of pressure to shift the cost from being per instance to per project.

As I said above, Maintainers often really need more help than more money. One good way to start would potentially be to add testing and checking (including bug fixing and upstreaming) services to a project. This would necessarily involve liaising with the maintainer (and could involve an honorarium) but the object should be to be assistive (and thus scalably added) to what the Maintainer is already doing and prevent the service becoming a Maintainer time sink.

Professional Maintainers

Most of the above analysis assumed Maintainers are giving all the time they have available to the project. However, in the case where a Maintainer is doing the project in their spare time or is an Employee of a Company and being paid partly to work on the project and partly on other things, paying them to become a full time Maintainer (thus leaving their current employment) has the potential to add the hours spent on “other things” to the time spent on the project and would thus be a net win. However, you have to also remember that turning from employee to independent contractor also comes with costs in terms of red tape (like health care, tax filings, accounting and so on), which can become a significant time sink, so the net gain in hours to the project might not be as many as one would think. In an ideal world, entities paying maintainers would also consider this problem and offer services to offload the burden (although none currently seem to consider this). Additionally, turning from part time to full time can increase the problem of burn out, particularly if you spend increasing portions of your newly acquired time worrying about admin issues or other problems associated with running your own consulting business.

Conclusions

The obvious conclusion from the above analysis is that paying maintainers mostly doesn’t achieve it’s stated goals. However, you have to remember that this is looking at the problem thorough the prism of claimed end results. One thing paying maintainers definitely does do is increase the mechanisms by which maintainers themselves make a living (which is a kind of essential existential precursor). Before paying maintainers became a thing, the only real way of making a living as a maintainer was reputation monetization (corporations paid you to have a maintainer on staff or because being a maintainer demonstrated a skill set they needed in other aspects of their business) but now a Maintainer also has the option to turn Professional. Increasing the net ways of rewarding Maintainership therefore should be a net benefit to attracting people into all ecosystems.

In general, I think that paying maintainers is a good thing, but should be the beginning of the search for ways of remunerating Open Source contributors, not the end.

  1. The word “cancer” was chosen to be pejoratively negative to indicate dire consequences. However, precisely the opposite has happened with things like OIN where we now have an IP neutral zone in a lot of Open Source projects, which fosters huge innovation and has really turned into a great positive (which even Microsoft has now recognized by joining OIN)

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