Can one sponsor sustain a FOSS project on the long term?

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chs's picture

These days I am receiving quite a number of mails that ask the same question: If a FOSS project is sponsored by only one company or entity, do you think it's a healthy project?


In order to answer this question, we need to define some terms first. Let's start by the term "sponsor". By sponsor we mean an entity (company, NGO, Government) that provides certain types of resources. We can think of resources as roughly falling into three categories: infrastructure (website, tools, etc.), contributors (developers, engineers) and funding. Of course by providing infrastructure and contributors, the sponsor provides funding indirectly as well. But if we break the notion of sponsoring into these three different kinds of resources investment and sharing, we can already see that the answer is not as straightforward as it may have seem at first sight.



Let's ask now the same question with each time one of these three categories of resources.


"If a FOSS project has its infrastructure provided and operated  by only one entity, do you think it's a healthy project?" The answer calls for nuance but I think we can reasonably answer by yes. The FOSS project in question  should make sure it has the control on its infrastructure and tools and make sure the sponsor is not going to go away anytime soon. A good example of this is the KDE project, which is relying on the Qt toolkit and developed by a company called Trolltech (now Nokia). Questions were raised as to whether Trolltech was a fundamental weakness of the KDE project as it was not a FOSS company, but KDE nonetheless managed to strive. Of course one can always wonder whether the infrastructure/tools providers won't try to influence the project. But that depends on many othe factors.


Let's ask the same question now with the case of the sponsor providing contributors to the project:


"If a FOSS project has most or all of its contributors provided by one single entity, do you think it's a healthy project?" The answer , I think, is: the project should better open up itself, and the earlier the better. One project cannot pretend to continue over long periods of time if it only is a collection of contributors paid by one entity only, although the project itself can be set up for a very specific goal and a short time frame (develop software A according to our specs only and then maintain it). You need diversity and differences. After all, FOSS projects may gather some like-minded people because it would seem they're working on one common goal, would it? The better answer to this would rather be that since FOSS projects are communities of people and entities aligning one variable segment of their interest on others, then the case of the one sponsor providing for the whole code is very much the case of an unhealthy project, unless, of course, the project itself and its sponsor make sure anyone else can participate and contribute.


Last but not least, we shall now ask the question with the funding option in mind:


" If a FOSS project has all of its funding provided by one single entity, do you think it's a healthy project?" The answer, I feel, might depend on the project itself, but one thing is for certain: unless the project diversifies its sources of funding, it will live under the threat or the necessary peremption of the funding granted by its one sponsor.


One would thus be inclined to think that one sponsor only is not good for a FOSS projects, although nuances do exist and have to be taken into careful consideration. It then begs the question: What is a healthy FOSS project after all? We named possible cases of projects that we deem to be "unhealthy" but you sure don't need to have one only sponsor for your FOSS project to fail!



Charles-H. Schulz,

Ars Aperta.

What of Ubuntu and Canonical?

An obviously missing case in point is the role of Canonical as the funding body of Ubuntu.

What, if any, is the author's take on Ubuntu?




w. jones

How important is the FOSS project to it's single sponsor

In the case of a single sponsor you have to ask the question about how fundimental is the project to that company's business. In the case of Redhat and Canonical and Novell the answer is that it's the bedrock of their business so the projects will be healthy as long as they are healthy. If you look at OpenOffice the situation is very unheathy. OpenOffice is unimportant to Oracle's core business and it doesn't have the potential to generate enough revenue on it's own to support itself, the only reason Oracle might continue to fund it is because they don't want to piss the world off but that doesn't mean they won't let it slowly rot. A third situation is Firefox, they've been dependent on a sole customer, Google, who is now in direct competition with it. Google has no reason to cut off the revenue stream to Firefox because it's based on forwarding searches to Google. But as Chome takes market share from Firefox it will directly impact Mozilla's revenue from Google searches which in the long run will lead to a death spiral for Firefox.


chs's picture

Particular case: Linux distributions

I think you ask a good question, but it's somewhat of a particular case. As surprising as it may seem, a linux distribution is not a sponsor per se. Rather, it agregates a whole set of software, configures them around the Linux kernel (that it may configure too) and packages the whole. Technically this job of creating linux distribution is a downstream job and as such a linux distributor does not contribute to any specific project.

Now, of course in practice some linux distributors do contribute patches, code, money, infrastructure upstream directly to some specific projects. In the case of Canonical this can be the case. But Canonical does contribute to an already existing distribution, Debian. What they do is that without touching to the existing infrastructure they contribute to the Debian project and pay several, many, in fact, Debian devs and packagers.

But one cannot say Canonical is the only sponsor of "Linux" or Debian. Canonical is not interested in being the only sponsor of something.

On the specific question of Ubuntu, I think it's somehow a moot point. Ubuntu is a Linux distribution which happens to be developed by Canonical with the help of its own community. It's the same for many other distributions: Suse, Fedora, Mandriva... Remember that a Linux distribution agregates software but does not primarly produce software (okay, you must have proper install and configure scripts), it maintains and package existing software coming from the "outside".


Charles-H. Schulz.