Yet another developer of open source software has tired of companies utilizing the code he helps maintain without giving anything back to support the project.
On Tuesday, Christofer Dutz, creator of Apache PLC4X, said he will stop providing community support for the software if corporate users fail to step up and open their wallets.
“The industry seems to like using PLC4X and open-source in general, but doesn’t seem to be willing to support the people working on it,” he wrote in a post to GitHub. “So, I will stop providing free community support for PLC4X.”
Dutz is one of six listed maintainers of Apache PLC4X, a set of libraries for communicating with programmable logic controllers – industry-specific devices involved in the automation of various manufacturing tasks. His demand for support exists outside his involvement with the Apache Foundation; he maintains a separate IT consultancy called c-ware to help companies design and implement PLC4X software to suit their respective businesses.
C-ware has launched several crowdfunding initiatives to adapt Apache PLC4X to Python, Rust, and TypeScript, among other enhancements, but these have barely attracted any funding commitments.
Finally, the lack of crowdfunding or corporate support has led him to look for an exit.
“This is my final attempt,” he wrote. “If this also doesn’t help with getting at least some form of financial attribution for my hard work, I will close down my business and there will be no further form of support from my side.”
This lack of financial support is particularly remarkable given his claims about the potential value that can be accrued by running Apache PLC4X. In a previous blog post he describes prototyping a data collection system using the software that would have saved the unnamed customer €20m.
Dutz’s distress call comes just days after another open source developer, Marak Squires, sabotaged two of his own projects. That was nine months after Squires complained about the unwillingness of those using open source software to pay for it.
Pay the piper
Over the past few years, software developers who bought into the idea of laboring with little or no compensation for the benefit of the community have begun to question the inequitable distribution of the value they’ve created and the profiteering predicated on their donated time and expertise.
What’s referred to as the open source sustainability problem has played out on a large scale where companies like Amazon have been accused of co-opting open source projects to stifle smaller competitors like Elasticsearch and MongoDB. It came up following the disclosure of the Log4j vulnerabilities when one of the maintainers fired back at critics who demand better security without contributing anything themselves – as it did when the heartbleed bug bit OpenSSL in 2014. And it remains an unsolved problem for any number of less well-known projects.
Devon Zuegel, open source project manager at GitHub, published a post on the subject in 2019, writing, “OSS is everywhere, yet it lacks financial and personnel resources. Developers and companies benefit from a vibrant OSS ecosystem, but they lack proportionate incentive to contribute time and money to creating and maintaining projects. This dramatically limits the value of OSS despite its enormous potential.”
GitHub actually did something in an effort to address the problem: it launched GitHub Sponsors in December, 2020, after a beta debut the year before. There are similar schemes like OpenCollective’s Funds for Open Source and the funding alerts output when developers use npm to install packages, but these efforts obscure the fundamentally exploitative nature of discretionary payments.
They’re little better than contests companies hold to obtain the rights to creative work while paying out a token monetary award to a few participants that’s far less than the market value of the work. Instead of being the tide that lifts all boats, donations serve as life preservers thrown to the select few among all those treading water.
In other forms of labor, compensation is commonly declared in advance via contract, what’s generally referred to as a salary. There are commission arrangements, where salespeople (hopefully) get a pre-declared percentage of sales. And some industries work gratuities into the equation, so they can shift labor costs to customers.
But software developers, many of whom now are now involved in the unpaid creation and maintenance of critical code infrastructure, don’t even have the predictability of tips, which restaurant workers and food delivery contractors can reasonably expect due to social conditioning, actual generosity in the face of employer cost-avoidance, and app interface dark patterns.
Instead, open source developers have found themselves participating in the feast-or-famine paradigm that platforms like Spotify and the App Store have redefined how digital goods get sold. The fortunate can make more than $100,000 annually through programs like GitHub Sponsors. But that’s not the norm.
Shockingly low payback
In 2019, developer André Saltz looked at available donation data from OpenCollective and GitHub. “The results I found were shocking: there were two clearly sustainable open source projects, but the majority (more than 80 per cent) of projects that we usually consider sustainable are actually receiving income below industry standards or even below the poverty threshold,” he wrote in a blog post that year.
In 2020, musical artists on Spotify outside the top 2 per cent of earners earned an estimated $12 to $15 per month from their work. For aggregating all that copyrighted content and offering it to subscribers, Spotify founder Daniel Elk now has a net worth of several billion dollars.
What science fiction writer William Gibson famously observed about the future – The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed – turns out to be true about financial compensation.
When The Register asked Feross Aboukhadijeh, a well-known open-source developer, about open source sustainability in the context of the Log4j debate, he speculated that the problems open source developers face seeking compensation would take the form of alternative software licenses.
Perhaps we’ll see more licenses emerge that place conditions on usage, like the one offered by game tool maker Unity: Its software is free if you’ve used it to make a game that generates a gross annual revenue of less than $100,000. If your project turns out to be more profitable than that, there’s a licensing fee.
It’s either that or relying on the kindness of strangers, because government intervention at a time of regulatory paralysis looks like a pipe dream and would probably only make things worse if it actually happened. ®