What Open Source can learn from universities to fix its funding

Open source software and top research universities (like MIT and Cambridge) create incredible value and share surprisingly many features — from similar cultural roots to high-level functions. From this perspective, GitHub might even be the largest informal university ever created.

What if we explore this idea for solutions to OSS problems? I have been excited to discover an unusual difference in sustainable funding tools of these similar worlds, which could pave a way to solving the open source maintenance crisis. But let's come there step by step.

Similar culture

Like in the open source world, unpaid enthusiasts laid out many foundational layers of modern science. Notable examples include a tax collector outlining modern chemistry (Antoine Lavoisier, 1789), an unemployed person developing computing theory basics (Ada Lovelace, 1843), a monk founding genetics as a science (Gregor Mendel, 1865), and of course, a patent clerk making groundbreaking contributions to physics (Albert Einstein, 1905). As science's complexity and recognition had vastly grown, it turned into a usual, reasonably paid job in the early 20th century.

Later in the 1980s, the free and open source culture emerged out of US universities and inherited their reputation-based features. Both scientists and OSS developers like to collaborate and care more about what other community members think about than how much the market is ready to pay for their work. It is even formalized in the peer review of scientific papers, code and other contributions. Notably, the open source community has not come up with its "h-index" yet, but uses GitHub's metrics like stars for quick orientation instead.

Nowadays, both cultures thrive in specific types of clusters that unite people with shared knowledge-related interests and diverse expertise levels — campuses and OSS communities. These social clusters operate similarly by enabling cross-pollination of ideas, helping participants to develop new technologies and share knowledge with each other.

Similar functions

Over the last centuries universities evolved into organisations revolving around three core activities: they teach people (education), create intellectual property (research) and sell its most applicable parts (tech transfer). While some countries have slightly different models, that's how top universities operate. And OSS works essentially the same way!

The global open source community is a fruitful environment for education, having GitHub as its free university with the largest campus (100M+ users) and the largest code library (100M+ public repos) in the world. It's also highly inclusive — any person can learn or gain work experience from OSS projects, regardless of their nationality, wealth, gender, etc. And when junior community members (students) become more senior (alumni) they tend to stay around, supporting others.

Since 1980s, this community has produced software our world simply can't run without: now 96% of codebases contain OSS components constituting 77% of all their code. Its replacement value is around $9 trillion, and without OSS, enterprises would have to spend 3.5x more on software.

OSS is a generous public good with an important caveat — in terms of maintenance, software is closer to roads, than to scientific contributions. One needs to adopt it to the dynamic environment, fix bugs and security issues, otherwise it might become dysfunctional or harmful.

While closed source software is usually maintained by its business owner, only a tiny share of OSS is well-suited for building businesses around it (similarly to university spin-offs). Some projects are commercialised via consulting and paid support, and even smaller part can turn into startups which I and a few other VCs like to invest in.

But different funding

While most of universities and some popular open source projects collect donations, there is a striking difference in approaches to their funding.

In XVII-XIX centuries, societies recognised the long-term value of universities and enabled sustainable funding for them via public (governments) or private resources (endowments). Thanks to this, we enjoy so many fruits of progress today.

Unlike universities, the current OSS funding has an unpredictable, short-term and volatile nature, based on irregular donations from individuals, companies and few foundations. In other words, reliability and security of the our tech-enabled world still mostly depend on enthusiasts fixing crucial code for free in their spare time.

I don't think that governments can solve this problem at scale — not only because of classic efficiency issues, but mainly due to globally-decentralised nature of open source. However, it's nice to see that Germany has at least tried and created a small OSS-focused fund (non-endowment).

The private endowment model seems the best one for the sustainable OSS funding: it collects donations from the OSS community and the tech industry, invest them in conservative portfolio and spends only investment yield every year. Such model would create a predictable cashflow for the most crucial OSS projects requiring extra resources. However, I have not found any live open source endowments in the world so far.

So what?

I am ready to personally donate to such an open source endowment fund and actively help to shape it, leveraging my experience of building one successful tech-enabled endowment in 2020-2022. Please contact me, if we are thinking in the same direction.

Open source is the backbone of the modern world and will likely stay here forever. Frankly, it is even easier for me to imagine the future without universities than without OSS. And it's time to fix its sustainable maintenance problem, if we want this future to look well.