The commercialization of a volunteer-driven Open Source project

In the Open Source software community, there is a considerable nervousness regarding paying people to work on volunteer-driven projects. For example, Joomla recently hired some developers to work on their core software, a decision that has caused much debate in their community. At Drupal, we recently hired a temporary staff to help with the redesign. There is an understandable concern that the spirit of volunteerism will be lost or a volunteer project will be tainted when a paid staff is introduced. There are worries that a project's agenda will change to suit the needs of 'privateers'. However, many projects that rely completely on volunteers fall short of what can be done by a paid staff. Some projects can't afford not to make use of the benefits that a full-time, focused staff can provide.

The concept of major projects growing out of a volunteer, community-based model is not new to the world. Throughout history there are examples of pure volunteer organizations that were instrumental in the founding and formation of many projects. The first trade routes were ancient trackways which citizens later developed on their own into roads suited for wheeled vehicles in order to improve commerce. Transportation was improved for all citizens, driven by the commercial interest of some. Today, we certainly appreciate that our governments maintain the roads. However, we still see road signs stating that a particular section of a highway is kept clean and trim by volunteers — at least in some countries. When new ground needs to be broken, it's often volunteer communities that do it. But a full-time, paid infrastructure can be necessary for the preservation and protection of what communities begin. And when new advances are to be made or gaps to be filled in, volunteers rise up within the paid infrastructure. There will always be a place for volunteers, just as there is a place for professionals.

It's quite common in the software industry that great movements are started by volunteers. While this can work quite well initially, there comes a time when a volunteer-based project becomes a threat to larger, controlled organizations (e.g., MySQL to Oracle, Linux to Microsoft). At that point, if the Open Source organization is to survive and compete, it may have to fortify its position by fostering commercial involvement that helps the project advance and compete. Red Hat is a good example. Without Red Hat, Linux might not have the strong market share it has today. It is also one of the reasons I co-founded Acquia, and why it is important that all Drupal companies contribute back to the project.

Within the Drupal project, we don't have a paid staff to advance the core software. However, many of the developers who contribute to critical parts of the Drupal code base make their living by building complex Drupal websites. Some Drupal developers are paid by customers to contribute their expertise to the Drupal project or are employed by companies 'sponsoring' Drupal development. Tens of thousands of developers are working with Drupal today, and many of them contribute back to the project. Albeit different, neither Joomla or Drupal are exclusively a volunteer run project, and that is one of the reasons we've grown so big. Ditto for WordPress that gets a lot of help from Automattic.

Volunteers rally together at times when they're needed and they play a critical role, particularly in the beginning. Without them, we would be nowhere in the Open Source software industry. Over time the maintenance and operation and in some cases the leadership are transferred to paid personnel. We have to accept into our projects those with commercial interests, without capitulating to rigid and narrow commercial interests. The commercialization of a volunteer-driven Open Source project is part of a project's natural life-cycle. While it can be a significant change, it is a great opportunity. We can reap the benefits of growth, prevent volunteer burn-out and distribute the effort.