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GitHub Sponsors pledge to OSS developers sparks debate

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GitHub has created a way to empower and financially compensate open source developers, and it could reshape the open source software development model – for better or worse.

The version control service provider’s GitHub Sponsors service, unveiled at the company’s Satellite conference in Berlin this week, enables GitHub users to financially support open source developers that have projects hosted on GitHub. GitHub will match all contributions up to $5,000 during a developer’s first year in the program. In addition, the firm will not charge any platform fees for users supporting other developers, and the company also will cover all payment processing fees for the first 12 months of the program.

GitHub Sponsors is now in private beta with a small group of developers who spend the most time on the platform, and later this summer GitHub will open the waitlist for developers seeking sponsorship, Zuegel said.

“Open source developers build the tools for the rest of us,” said Devon Zuegel, senior product manager for open source at GitHub. “Sponsors is a new way for people to connect on our platform and to pay each other as well.”

GitHub’s attempt to pay open-source software maintainers directly through the standard GitHub workflow will increase the visibility of open source projects, but it’s not the first such effort.

Boston-based Tidelift also supports open source software makers and maintainers for the value they create. Tidelift Subscriptions provide customers with support for open source software (OSS) projects that are vetted for security and quality, and Tidelift shares subscription fees with the open source project maintainers to ensure that the software they produce meets commercial standards, said Donald Fischer, TideLift co-founder and CEO.

Paying OSS contributors: A double-edged sword?

This trend has the potential to uplift the OSS community – or polarize it.

Some believe GitHub Sponsors has the potential to do for OSS what Apple’s App Store did for mobile developers: give them a chance to create a sustainable lifestyle to work on code they love, or that is important to well-heeled enterprises. “Even if that value accrues to a small number of deserving committers, it’ll still be a net positive,” said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst with Forrester Research.

At the same time, while many still wonder if the OSS model is sustainable, most of the focus seems to be on corporate creators of OSS projects, not individuals, he added.

Others see a slippery slope with such efforts, suggesting that they will widen the gap between the OSS haves and have-nots.

“There will be conflict between developers who accept sponsorships and those who don’t. There will be corporations buying themselves into certain key projects, and there will be developers making good money by contributing to these projects on GitHub,” said Torsten Volk, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. “This fundamentally changes the character and social dynamics of GitHub. To which degree, remains to be seen.”

Likewise, though he says he was skeptical of the idea at first, efforts like GitHub Sponsors could lead to more consistency in OSS projects by providing incentives for developers to stick with projects and ensure unwavering quality, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, Hayward, Calif.

“At the end of the day this is a more honest and transparent model than developing open source on an employer’s dime, where there may be a conflict between what is right and what the employer pays for,” said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, San Francisco.

Meanwhile, others like David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails web development framework, roundly criticized the GitHub move, saying that it could make the process of creating open source software too transactional. “I think it’s a grave risk to the culture of open source,” Heinemeier Hanson tweeted.

Microsoft influence?

Moreover, the fact that Microsoft owns GitHub is not lost on critics who fear that the software giant may strive to exert undue influence over the OSS world by becoming the standard platform for OSS developers to get paid. Developer concerns about Microsoft’s influence over GitHub and open source started as soon as word of the acquisition came out last year, and they haven’t abated.

For instance, when GitHub recently introduced the GitHub Package Registry, Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, said, “A monopoly on both development experience and artifact pipelines. Just what I always wanted when I imagined the future. Not,” in a tweet that has since been deleted.

Others expressed concern that efforts like GitHub Sponsors will spur developers to join popular projects that have greater sponsorship and abandon others — or to follow the money. Sure, there’s bound to be some of that, but in most cases the sponsored developers are not likely to make tons of money. The contributions will be more like tips from individuals that use an OSS project and want to say thanks.

I’m all for GitHub Sponsors and overall efforts for developers to get paid for their efforts. If there was such a thing for journalists I’d turn my sponsorship page on in a minute. My main concern would be how it might impact my agreement with my employer. And I expect that a lot of developers with “day jobs” will have similar concerns,