Who Pays to Keep OS Software Working?

Posted by Jen Quraishi

9 April 2015

Open-source software is one of those tech world conundrums. Everyone can use it, many rely on it, but no one really pays for it. Often, maintenance is done by volunteers on a triage basis, which can lead to extended downtime.

A new non-profit that might fix some of these problems. Ruby Together, a 501c6 non-profit trade association that pays engineers to maintain and improve open-source projects like Bundler and RubyGems, launched last month. It’s funded by corporate donors like Stripe and EngineYard and nearly 60 individual donors.

To learn more about Ruby Together, I talked with founder Andre Arko. Arko, who got started with Ruby back in 2003 or 2004, was motivated to found Ruby Together due to technical and ethical issues. “A lot of companies make millions or billions based on a tech stack that is created by volunteers,” Arko said. "Ideally companies would pay their employees to work on open-source. Some companies are very exploitative, expecting employees to work days for the company and nights working for free on open-source. Ruby Together is trying to improve the situation.

Should companies pay their engineers to work on open-source software?


To that end, one of Ruby Together’s main tasks is ongoing, proactive maintenance for Bundler and RubyGems. There’s a long list of other goals that includes security issue notifications, the release of Bundler 2.0, and RubyBench, among other projects. All of this should reduce downtime and better documentation, as well as actually improve and advance the public Ruby infrastructure.

But is a non-profit the right model to provide these services? There is some precedent, like the Linux Foundation and the jQuery Foundation. Open-source advocate Chris Messina wrote to me that “Given many open-source communities, the non-profit approach can make sense, especially given successes like Mozilla or Apache.” Messina told me that “a singular non-profit has the benefit of cohesion, since everyone is being paid by the same entity.”

And although Ruby Together is funded by membership dues, the power of the organization stays largely within the seven-member Board of Directors. Current board members work at Heroku and Mozilla, among other companies. Corporate sponsors, which as of yesterday include Cloud City, get to vote in the annual board member elections, so it’ll be interesting to see what the board looks like a year from now. Until then, Arko says: “If companies are not willing to allocate paid engineer time to open source, then at least we can say, ‘Well, you raised a huge amount of v.c. money, so kick some of that toward us and we’ll make sure the people working on open source are at least getting paid to do that, because it IS part of your infrastructure, and it DOES matter how it’s maintained.’”

(Note: Mingle and ThoughtWorks are not members of Ruby Together, but ThoughtWorks created and maintains several open-source products and supports and contributes to open-source communities).

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