Making Money with Open-Source Software: What’s Our Responsibility?

Free, open-source software powers much of the web. And it’s part of what makes the web design industry so unique.

Could you imagine a traditional line of work that relies so heavily on no-cost tools? The concept would likely be unfathomable to anyone from an accountant to a zoologist. Yet it’s something web designers have embraced and, to some extent – expect.

Whether it’s building a website with WordPress, crafting a layout with Bootstrap, or storing data via MySQL, it’s an everyday occurrence. And these tools are just a few examples. We have a multitude of free options – each helping us do our job more effectively.

This has been the case for years. And things have gone remarkably smoothly. Some tools come and go, but the underlying philosophy of open-source software has endured. But that seems to be changing.

Lately, there’s been talk of so-called “free riders” who benefit from such projects without necessarily giving back.

That begs the question of what our responsibility is when using free, open-source software for commercial purposes. What, if anything, do we owe?

What follows isn’t a definitive answer. Instead, it’s a collection of thoughts on how we might reach a better understanding of the issue, along with some simple actions we can take.

Take a Freelance Free Ride

Granted, the debate over free riders has largely been about corporate users. The everyday freelancer hasn’t been the primary subject of debate.

But the lines can get blurry. Consider that anyone with the desire and skill can extend open-source software. As such, they can also financially benefit from their efforts.

This has been encouraged within the WordPress community. Many a theme and plugin has found success through commercial or freemium offerings. Once a certain status has been attained, does that developer become part of the conversation?

Likewise, one could build a custom plugin that’s specific to a client project. With that, we’re not only making money from building a website. We’re also able to charge more for a custom solution designed around the core software.

The ability of a freelancer to repeat this process could lead to significant growth. In the eye of some observers, a threshold might be crossed as revenue grows.

Open source software offers an opportunity for those looking to extend it for profit.

The Uncomfortable Truth about Free and Open-Source Software

It seems like there’s so much gray area when it comes to giving back to some open-source projects. There are arbitrary standards about who should contribute and how they should do so. Etiquette is often insinuated but not clearly defined.

Plus, the mere fact that an app or framework is publicly released ensures that users will take advantage to various degrees. Some will use them in ways the author neither expected nor intended. Others will discover methods to profit from it.

This may make project stakeholders squeamish. Yet it’s also the reality of our world. Technology can be used for good, bad, and everything in between. It’s part of the risk you take when allowing anyone to access your creation.

If everyone from a solo entrepreneur to a large hosting company can freely use an app, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some will refuse to play nicely. In a competitive market, people are looking for an edge. Ethically speaking, sometimes their actions go against the grain.

When software is released publicly, some people may use it in unintended ways.

What Should We Do?

Defining what counts as a contribution is open to interpretation. There are both official and unofficial ways to do so. With that, it’s up to each of us to think about what we want to give back to the projects we benefit from – or if we want to give back at all.

If your skills and schedule allow for an official role, then becoming a volunteer is a wonderful way to give thanks. Regardless of the software, there is almost always a need for human resources. Even a few hours a month can make a positive impact.

Not everyone has the time, resources, or expertise to dedicate to official contribution channels. However, unofficial efforts are also worthwhile.

If you fit into this category, there are still some valuable ways to pay it forward:

Respect Software Licensing

This kind of contribution doesn’t require any grand gestures or public declarations. By using an app, you’re agreeing to the terms of its license. From there, it’s up to you to follow through.

For example, there may be rules about redistribution or using companion software that follows a set of standards. Staying within those boundaries is good practice and a show of respect for those who put their precious time into the project.

This is the least we can do to help a project fulfill its promise.

Share Your Knowledge and Experience

If you’ve had experience with an app, take some time to share it with others. Pass along tips, tutorials, or opinions through social media or a blog. Tell your clients how their organization can benefit from the software.

This raises awareness, which is the lifeblood of many open-source offerings. It’s particularly important for small projects that don’t have widespread name recognition.

As an aside, it’s also worth letting the people behind the project know about your efforts. They’ll likely appreciate the recognition.

Support the Ecosystem

A healthy ecosystem is often part of a thriving open-source project. Think of WordPress as a prime example. If there were no third-party themes and plugins available, the core software would become less appealing. Extensibility means a great deal.

You can support the ecosystem by using and promoting your favorite items. Purchase commercial versions if they fit your needs. And you can contribute your own creations as well.

Recognize Other Contributors

A lot of work goes into making great tools. Countless hours spent in design, development, support, and other areas are required. But it doesn’t have to be a thankless job.

Taking the time to say “thank you” to contributors goes a long way. So often, we only see the negatives in the public sphere. Thus, a quick note of encouragement can make all the difference.

Again, it doesn’t have to be anything grand. Whether it’s a shout-out on Twitter or an email, make a point of spreading positivity. It’s something everyone needs to hear now and again.

There are plenty of official and unofficial ways to give back to an open-source project.

Think about the Software We Use

In this age of powerful open-source software and nearly-instantaneous downloads, it’s easy to take what we have for granted. And no one can blame you if your focus tends to be on the task at hand. That’s a natural part of running a business or having a job.

At the same time, it’s important to take a step back and think about the software we use. Where does it come from? Who built it? How have their efforts impacted us?

Then consider what you’re able to give back. Perhaps not all contributions are equal. But they all matter nonetheless.

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