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GitHub ‘Sponsors’ Now Lets Users Back Open Source Projects

Last year, Microsoft paid $7.5 billion to buy GitHub, the online home of thousands of open source software projects that power apps and sites ranging from Facebook to Walmart.com. The acquisition, along with IBM’s $34 billion purchase of open source company Red Hat, proved that open source software can be big business.

That’s a little surprising since, by definition, open source code can be freely shared by anyone. Red Hat makes money by selling support for its open source products, while companies like Facebook and Google make money on the services they build atop open source code. But even as some companies build multibillion-dollar businesses atop freely available code, other open source projects are the work of hobbyists in their free time.

“The way you become an open source maintainer is often accidental,” says GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, who joined the company from Microsoft when the acquisition closed last October. “You make something great, and then you share it because you want other people to use it. Then there are all these expectations of you.”

GitHub hopes to help programmers spread their wealth around with a new feature called “Sponsors” that will enable users to make recurring payments to other users, much like the crowdfunding service Patreon. A beta test starts Thursday.

Nat Friedman, CEO of GitHub.

BENJAMIN PRITZKULEIT/Github

Some open source projects already use fund-raising tools like Patreon, OpenCollective, and Tidelift to fund their work, but Sponsors will enable them to raise money from within GitHub, where developers come to download their work, ask them questions, and report bugs. For the first year, GitHub will match up to $5,000 in contributions for each person who is sponsored, says Friedman. He says the company won’t take a cut of the funds paid through the service. GitHub will cover any payment processing fees, at least for now.

Friedman says anyone can apply for sponsorship through the service while it’s in beta, including people who work on documentation or other nontechnical aspects of software projects. But even though you can technically host any type of file on GitHub, Friedman says the company probably won’t allow people to use Sponsors for non-software projects for the time being.

Sponsors won’t solve the funding crunch in open source on its own. But James Governor, cofounder of the developer-centric analyst firm RedMonk, says it’s a good step toward making it easier to pay developers for their work. “Nobody is going to get vastly rich with mechanisms like this, but that isn’t necessarily the goal,” Governor says.

Fatih Arslan, the developer of an open source plugin for the popular code editor Vim, which adds support for Google’s programming language Go, is participating in the test. He doesn’t expect Sponsors to replace his salary as a software engineer at cloud computing company Digital Ocean, but he does hope the extra funds will help justify the time he spends on side projects.

Arslan says he’s been working on open source projects since he was a teenager. “However, now that I have two kids, it’s become harder and harder to keep up the pace,” he says.

Making sure open source developers get paid isn’t just a moral issue. It’s also a security issue. If programmers can’t devote time and energy to a project, it’s easy for security vulnerabilities to slide by, as the world saw in 2014. That was the year vulnerabilities surfaced in two crucial but lesser known open source projects, OpenSSL and Bash, which are included with most standard web server operating systems. Funding security audits for open source software could go a long way toward making the web more secure.

In many cases, users of an open source application might not even be aware of all the different pieces of code that application is built upon. That’s because today’s developers rely on many different open source “libraries” of code that handle routine features, such as processing user credentials.

“In the ’90s, if you wanted to code you had to code basic data structures first,” Friedman says. “But today developers can get much more done while writing less code.”

The catch is that these libraries often rely on other libraries, making it hard to keep track of where all the code in an application comes from. GitHub is also adding features to make it easier for developers to see who contributes to the software they depend on, and then sponsor those projects.

The company also announced new features to make it easier for users to keep track of all the different open source projects they rely upon and to incorporate security fixes when they’re available. Friedman says the new features don’t have much to do with Microsoft, though he does say that having Microsoft’s backing might give the team confidence to try new things.


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