Another way to contribute
Posted 4 Apr 2000 at 02:31 UTC by barryp
For many years, people have been contributing a huge amount of valuable services to the computer-community, through writing
software, writing documentation, testing, or even setting up websites such as this one. Most of this is done freely, perhaps as a
What can you do if you really want to show your appreciation to the
you enjoy visiting, or the games you enjoy playing? Not everybody is a coder or a webmaster, and even if you were - you may not
necessarily be able to whip up something directly useful to the people you are most grateful to.
Fortunately, several thousand years ago somebody came up with the
idea of money as a medium of exchange - I'm sure most of you have heard of it :)
Basically, money can make things happen in a community. It might be something directly related to computers,
like allowing someone to buy a good O'Reilly book or a new harddisk, or something more personal like helping to pay someone's rent or
buy them a good dinner. People have commented on how projects tend to go unfinished, or how bug-fixing and doc-writing are
Perhaps a few bucks here or there can grease the wheels and make the icky jobs a bit more rewarding.
While there are many convenient ways for authors to announce and distribute software and services to the community,
Freshmeat, SourceForge, and hundreds of others, it hasn't been very convenient to distribute money around the community. Most
can't accept credit cards, so the only way was to find someone's snail-mail address, stick a check or some cash in an envelope, seal it
with spit, and drop in in the mail.
I recently ran across a new service on the web that might make it easier for people to contribute to the
people they wish to support. www.paypal.com basically lets you upload money from a credit card
an account on their site, and then transfer the money to other people given their e-mail address, anywhere from 1 cent up to $2000. The
recipient can then either cash in the money, or transfer to someone else. (this article is not meant as a specific endorsement of
PayPal, but rather as a discussion of the idea in general)
Just about everybody in the community would welcome some cash, even if the the recipient doesn't
themselves. For example, if anyone sent me some money for the stuff I've done, I might be tempted to buy a good Java book, and send
buck or two to Zoid for
writing CTF which gave me many hours of pleasure, and FreeBSD which is very useful to me at work. Zoid might decide he could use a
new mousepad, and turn around and send the rest to Linus because he likes Linux. The FreeBSD guys might send a few bucks to
individual who's writing a device-driver and needs to buy a piece of hardware. Linus might want to support ... (you get the idea - money
just keeps going round and round - hopefully filling whatever needs are out there).
I think if you like something, it makes sense to vote with your wallet and provide some incentives for more and
better software. A service like PayPal will make it much easier to give even small amounts - and when multiplied by the number of
individuals out there, could add up to some significant resources. Imagine thousands of people, kicking in say $5 a month (less than the
cost of a movie ticket), distributing it however they say fit to the projects they liked. Too bad the government doesn't work that way ...
(If you liked this article, send money to email@example.com..
We need some more discussion of ways of funding free software in
general. There are some semi-canonical lists -- including, but not
limited to, a list that Eric Raymond came up with for The Magic
Cauldron. Certainly I periodically hear about related discussions
on fsb (I have yet to
A lot of the effort has really just seemed
to have been a matter of convincing the outside world that free software
is viable in the long term as a way of making a living. (I've heard a
number of people say, as I do, "I didn't get involved in the free
software community in order to make money from it -- but it's awfully
nice that, at the moment, I'm able to!".)
Meanwhile, friends and
relatives and strangers routinely ask how we make money from this. I'm
sure that many people are torn between the temptation to say that the
free software world is not specifically about making money and
the temptation to insist that, yes, you can make money from
I think now know some people who are getting paid a
full-time salary to hack on their projects (and, as a result, really
don't need micropayments or microcontributions from fans); I also know
some people who are insistent that they work on free software to
contribute to the community, and would hate to be confused with
such wretched sorts as (gasp!) shareware authors!
The world is complex enough now that everybody's got to have a more or
less different sensibility about this.
Here at Linuxcare, I have been involved in some discussions about how
useful various ways for a company to support free software development
might be. In many cases, a company might want to provide money or
resources to advance the development of a particular project -- but
there is often nobody in particular to contract with, if the company
really wants particular kinds of work to be done. Obviously CoSource
and SourceXchange have been set up to provide one sort of answer to this
problem; I hope that they are very successful in what they do.
This isn't really what you were talking about. You were
talking about individual enthusiasts who want to express their
appreciation for a particular package. And indeed the "small
contributions from individuals" is a good idea, where it's relevant; I'd
just like to point out that it's not completely relevant in every
situation. In the case of, for example, an independent student
developer of a small project, I think this suggestion works very well.
In the case of people trying to support themselves by writing free
software, or many other cases (someone who has a full-time job and
writes free software incidentally to that, or a large free software
project with many widely-dispersed independent contributors), it's hard
to think of how to apply this without creating some problems or
Bram Moolenaar wrote vim without the
apparent hope or desire of making any money from it, but instead
asked people who like vim
to donate money to a charity helping orphans in Uganda. It occurs
to me that, in the very common case where free software authors don't
personally care to be compensated for their work, it might be nice if
they mentioned charitable causes they cared for. After all, many
individual free software users do care to express their
appreciation, and maybe some of them would like to make a donation -- if
not to the author or maintainer of a package, perhaps to a charitable
Sorry, I should have said "don't care to be compensated by payments
from users" (perhaps because of disliking the associations to shareware
or guiltware from DOS and Windows days -- also known as "the Dark
Ages"). I assume that most everyone is happy to be paid
somehow for work on free software, if it works out that way.
I just had a look at www.paypal.com
and I found exactly what I was expecting: their micropayment system is
only available to U.S. citizens. I am not surprised by that, and I
would expect other sites to have the same limitations: the payments can
only be done in a limited region of the world.
There are several reasons for that. One of them is that Europe (for
example) has stronger privacy laws than the U.S. when it comes to credit
cards: in the U.S., a merchant who gets someone's credit card number and
street address can check if the address matches the billing address of
the credit card. In Europe, this is usually not allowed: the billing
can only be known by the bank (and the credit card owner, if he does not
suffer from amnesia) and it is not disclosed to the merchant. This
could explain why PayPal is only available to U.S. citizens: PayPal does
not trust foreign credit card numbers because it cannot check easily if
they are valid or not.
Another reason is that international transactions are subject to
taxes and variable exchange rates. Also, some credit cards add extra
charges for international payments, on top of the exchange rate. So
even if the trust problem could be solved, the micropayments would not
be interesting for the users. For instance, a Japanese user who wants
to send $5 to a Mexican developer may not be able to do it (or may have
to pay much more) because the transfer costs are ten times higher than
the amount to be transfered.
This does not mean that the person-to-person payments can never work
on a large scale. As the Internet grows and the laws evolve, it will
probably be increasingly easier to send small amounts of money from one
side of the world to the other side. But we are not there yet and it
will probably take several years until such a solution can work.
However, this should not prevent the happy users from giving
something back to the developers: for the users who cannot contribute
much, sending a "thanks" mail (or postcard, if the developer's
snail-mail address is known) will already be appreciated (by the way,
the thank-you letters are much more effective when they are not
followed by some requests for new features). For the users who are more
wealthy and who are willing to contribute a bit more, then sending some
money is still an option: if you are going to send $100 or $1000 to
someone, then you can probably afford to loose a few $ on the
Another problem is how to share the money among developers, if a
project involves many developers. You cannot simply send money to "the
Linux kernel" or to "the GIMP"... Several solutions have been found by
the companies or individuals who wanted to give some awards (or stock
options) to the Open Source projects: some of them gave the money only
to the lead developer(s) of each project and others spread the money
among the developers, using some heuristics to calculate the share of
each contributor. Is there a need to standardize this? I don't know.
It would be easy to create a template for the usual AUTHORS file and add
a percentage next to each author's name and address. But this would
probably lead to some stupid political debates about who deserves how
many % of the total. I would not like to see some free software
projects polluted in this way.
Money. Great idea. If we could only get more money to free software
developers, then, suddenly quality and production quantity would
quadruple and Linux would take over the world!!!!!
Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep. Try again.
If you or I had to do little more than lift a finger to get a $50k+
annual salary, I might believe you. The fact is that if you have the
skills to be writing quality open source software, then you also have
the skills that about 100 large companies and an additional 1000
startups are looking for and are willing to pay you big $$$ if you are
willing to do 50-60 hours of work for them. Of course, if you work
50-60 hours/week, that leaves only 110 hours/week for OSS development,
but I bet you wouldn't be coding 24/7 even if you didn't have to work
during the day.
Then again, say we could put together the infrastructure to fund many
OSS developers through charitable donations. Who does the money go
to? Does Linus get all of the money since he founded the biggest OSS
project? Do OSS projects get a proportionate amount based on the number
of Linux distiributions that include that product? Do we vote on the
most deserving projects?
Say we can put together a fair distribution scheme. Say you get $50 for
your work on Q2Java. Is that really going to improve your
ability and willingness to code OSS? Sure, you might go out and buy a
nice Java book and, yes, that will improve your knowledge of Java and
contribute to your ability to write OSS code, but if you didn't have the
money, wouldn't you have found the same information in some other way?
There is on-line Java documentation, y'know. There are Java discussion
groups. It's not that hard to get the information you need to
write quality code.
I think a more realistic way to make money off of OSS is to do as
LinuxCare, RedHat, etc. have done: provide services that supplement OSS
development. Many services (e.g. support, promises that software is
reliable, etc.) cannot be provided by a bunch of geeks (like me :-)
coding in their spare time. There is much money to be made off the
businessey aspects of OSS that us coders don't want to deal with.
One case where I think money can help OSS development is in the donation
of machines and/or bandwidth. If the lead of a project is about to
leave school and will no longer have her T1 connection and you have a
friend who works for Bell Atlantic, maybe you can set her up with free
ADSL service. If the lead of another project is still working away on
his 486dx2/66 machine, the donation of a PIII/500 would likely make the
project move along a bit quicker. Machines can also be helpful for
testing purposes (although widespread distribution/testing can also take
care of such problems).
CDs, posted 4 Apr 2000 at 13:29 UTC by pudge »
A certain developer I know requests that people who want to compensate him go to his personal
gift page on CD Now and buy him a CD on his wishlist. I think that's a pretty darn good idea.
jrennie, posted 4 Apr 2000 at 14:27 UTC by barryp »
Just as a quick reply to jrennie's post - the main point of the article wasn't about making a living off OSS, or putting together some big
infrastructure, or that people like me have no other way to find Java info. It was more about how something like PayPal could make it
easy to give something back to show appreciation to a favorite author or group.
Who does the money go to? That's up for you to decide - that's the whole point of giving, It shouldn't necessarily be dictated and
out. Do we vote on the most deserving projects? Absolutely, but with your wallet - in who you personally might decide to give to.
And what if someone needs a machine or bandwith? Not everyone has a machine to donate or a friend at Bell Atlantic, which is
why money is so handy - it's the one thing just about everybody has (hell, PayPal's giving money away just to sign up), even in small
amounts, but those small amounts can be combined to exchange for P-III's or
Would quality and production quadruple - probably not, since these are mostly labors of love, but for some people it might make
sailing a little smoother. Would it allow Linux to take over the world? I sure hope not, I like FreeBSD myself :)
In a comment above, jrennie starts by
saying that the open source software developers do not really need money
as a compensation. While this is probably true for those of us who have
a job that pays us enough to survive while still having some spare time
to devote to free software, this is not necessarily the case for the
students, who represent a large part of the free software community.
A few years ago, the only thing I had to write my code was an old
computer with a very small hard disk (compared to what was on the market
at that time). I remember that I had to delete some unused header files
and libraries from the djgpp and gcc directories in order to make room
for the programs that I was trying to develop (DEU and XSession, at that
time). If someone had sent me some money to buy a new hard disk or sent
the hard disk itself, I think that it would have been easier for me to
write these programs. Now that I can afford to buy these things, money
is not as important as it was when I was a student, but I am sure that
many students who are working on open source software would not mind
getting some gifts (money or hardware). Note that the status of the
students, their resources and the job opportunities available to them
vary greatly in different parts of the world, as you can see by looking
at the diaries of rakholh, kelly and others. (Isn't
it fun to use the diary entries as another discussion forum?)
Also, jrennie's comment drifts from
"money will not make software better" in the beginning to "how to make
money with free software" near the end, which is a bit off-topic.
However, I like the last paragraph suggesting the donation of hardware
and/or bandwidth. These can really help a project. And by the way, SourceForge is already doing that
to some extent, although all the hardware stays in one place and can
only be shared. What is missing is a site which would coordinate the
donations of hardware: as a satisfied user, you say that want to offer a
new hard disk to some project, and the site gives you a shipping
address. Well, maybe it is a bit more complicated than that... There
would be some obvious privacy issues with such a system.
The best gift that a user could offer to a developer is
time. The developers are always running out of time to
finish their open source projects. But unfortunately, time is something
that is not easy to transfer from one person to another...
If you cannot give time to someone else, then maybe helping them in
their project(s) is the second best choice. Instead of reporting a bug
or suggesting a new feature, try to fix it/implement it yourself. It
may take some time to get familiar with the code and to understand
enough of it to submit a patch, but you can think about the time you
spend doing that as if you were offering that time to the developer.
If you are not a programmer, then you can try to learn how to
program. This may sound like a silly proposal, but you can see that as
a long-term gift to the community: once you acquire some basic
programming skills, you will be able to contribute to some projects and
therefore help the developers that you wanted to thank. There are other
ways to contribute that do not involve any code: many projects
(especially some desktop applications or games) need good artwork or
sounds. And all of them need good documentation. So
if you don't know what a compiler is, you can at least contribute some
nice icons, graphics, music, or help pages. The time that you invest in
writing the documentation or creating images will probably be a better
gift than money.
time, posted 4 Apr 2000 at 19:01 UTC by jrennie »
Just to follow up to Raphael, I
wholeheartedly agree that one of the best contributions to an OSS
time. In certain key cases, money can be beneficial; however, time will
always be of assistance. Simply attempting to use a package and
reporting your thoughts can be of more benefit than a $100 check.
In my initial response, I was trying to argue that money
generally does very
little to push OSS development. Much more important, I believe, are
communication and time. Time allows for OSS projects to progress more
quickly and communnication allows for mutual support and better
decisions being made (amoungst other things).
Well - Raphael mentioned me and my 'status'. I live in Egypt. Its not easy to
send me money over here you know. I have no bank account and no credit card. So
if somebody wanted to send me money (not that I've worked on much (yet!)) they
couldn't (unless they just stuck cash in an envolope and sent it to me).
Yes - it would be nice if people 'purchase' gifts for me :) I just discovered
something new in Egypt - I have to pay CUSTOMS for these items (I had to pay 50
Egyptian pounds to FedEx in customs because soemone sent me OLD Debian 2.0 CDs
(as a donation) - anyway - Ticket on the box was 'Duties and Taxes go to
Sender' - they said they can't charge the US person for it and refused to refund
me the money. I assume i'll also have to pay customs on music CDs too. yuck
So even if somebody did send me something - I'd end up paying. Uggh. This didn't
happen to me in Kuwait though - HelixCode sent me Havoc's book as a 'gift' and I
got it with no customs (they don't have any there cos they're so damn rich) - so
that was good :)
Also - its impossible for me to get a job here unless I have a BSc in CompSci -
no matter how skilled I am (well - close to impossible). Internships are mainly
open for SOphomores, Juniors, and Seniors - so I also can't get paid that way.
So - I have '0' income :)
The point of this post is - if you wanna 'give something back' - well it may not
be possible. Its very very difficult for somebody to give me something in return.
I'm not rich so i can't attend any of those conferences that happen all over the
world :( Which is bad cos it further isolates me in the OpenSource world.
Hmm - I think I'm beginning to rant and going off topic now - so i'll stop
Continued education is another need that individuals could donate
towards. Most organizations have discounted conference fees for
students, but it would be interesting to see a fund setup to pay the
way of the people who don't qualify under the specific student
Of course, this edges back into the realm of a managed fund
which decides who would benefit (as opposed to an adhoc individual
effort), but I don't think that automatically
makes it a bad idea. Almost every professional community provides
scholarships or financial incentive for education, there's no inherent
reason that the OSS community should be different.
Book Tokens, posted 5 Apr 2000 at 07:09 UTC by caolan »
About the easiest most cross boundary thing would be to buy the developer in question some book tokens at an online book seller of his
choice, small amounts are allowed. Small payments can accrue together before being used so that each micropayment does not get
crushed by cross border charges and tariffs
Books are what I live for so that would be my ideal choice