Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Discussing Open Source funding and sustainability on the Sustain podcast

I was invited on the Sustain podcast to discuss my recent rant about open source sustainability. I talked about my reaction to the criticism that open source maintainers receive when they take funding, and how this is a personal issue for me – maintainers aren’t abstract ideas to me, they’re my friends. We discussed my call for a more expansive definition of open source, and got into some of the nuance about some of the problems this can cause. It was a good discussion; I’m super-happy to have had the opportunity!

Listen here, or download wherever you get your podcasts:

Taking a cue from Simon’s recent podcast appearances, I pulled out a few of my favorite quotes from the episode. These quotes are edited for clarity and remove some of my verbal tics.

I used the same technique Simon uses to find these, knitting together MacWhisper for transcription and Claude for extraction.

When people criticize maintainers for taking money, it feels personal (01:35)

There’s this dynamic around open source: when someone takes money for their open source work through any mechanism, someone always shows up to criticize them for it. If they launch a Patreon, they’re shilling. If they raise money from a grant, they’ve taken money from the US government and they are corrupt. If they do an “open core” model where they have an open source project and then support the business with some sort of proprietary versions or add-on, they’re getting ready for a rug pull. If they work full time on Python but are employed by Microsoft, well, their motives are suspect because Microsoft is evil.

I even heard from one maintainer who got hate mail for selling t-shirts. I can’t figure out how anyone could be against t-shirts, it happened!

I think for many people, open source maintainers are this abstract concept. They’re a handle on GitHub that they interact with. They don’t really think about them as a person. But I’ve been involved in open source for almost 25 years, and these aren’t random abstract handles. These are my friends. These are people I know well enough to understand that this maintainer has children with complex health needs, so being on a well-funded healthcare plan is incredibly important for him1. I know another maintainer who has chosen to live in a tiny off-grid cabin with very low living expenses so that he can afford to support himself on the incredibly meager donations that he gets. Another maintainer has decided to quit her day job and try to make a go of it just writing open source funded by a Patreon, which is not anywhere close to meeting her current rent levels. These are not abstract issues to me. These are very personal.

On the need for some sort of “big tent” terminology (09:00)

I’m annoyed that there’s this gatekeeping around what can and can’t be determined to be open source. I really want to see a lot more experimentation around licensing, around funding models, around stuff like that. Saying, “Oh, well, that doesn’t count,” is a way of dismissing that experimentation without engaging with it. We don’t have a term for this sort of open-ish, kind of open, non-proprietary, sort of software.

I feel like if we had some sort of language that we could use to describe formal open source, but also these other things that are around the margins that encompasses some of this messiness, I think that would make this discussion a lot better. I do regret not trying to coin a term so that I could use it in the article.

Criticize institutions, not individuals (27:30)

I have a friend who is one of those “building open source backed by VC” folks. It’s very easy for me to say “congratulations!” to them while also saying that Sequoia can march right into the ocean.

We can say “the system of venture capital is not particularly compatible with open source and the institutions are morally bankrupt”, but then also say, “Dude, you did it. Good job. Amazing. How did you convince them? What did that look like? Can other people learn from that?”

If there’s one big takeaway [I’d like people to get from this episode], it’s criticize institutions, not individuals. I love the recycling analogy. Don’t yell at people for putting their cans in the trash and just completely ignore the entire rest of the supply chain. That’s exactly what I’m calling for here. Be super happy for the individuals, even if you are super critical of the institutions.

Give it a listen

We also talked about some other topics: how ethics and morality fit into decisions about releasing (or not releasing) software, experimentation with novel licenses like PolyForm, and more. I hope you’ll give it a listen!

  1. For readers not familiar with the US healthcare system, “well-funded healthcare plan” translates to “works for a major corporation”. That is, the only way to get good healthcare as a US citizen is to work for a company big enough to negotiate a solid insurance plan. (And even then, it’s not a guarantee; many big company plans suck.) Yes, this is incredibly fucked up. ↩︎