Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Tidelift Is Paying Maintainers And, Potentially, Fixing the Economics of an Industry
As the founder of Changeset Consulting, I keep my eye on consultancies and services in and near my niche, open source leadership, maintainership, and sustainability.* And I've known Luis Villa for years and got to work with him at Wikimedia. So yeah, I noticed when Tidelift announced its big new launch. And -- now, as a very-part-time consultant who helps Tidelift understand the Python world -- I am excited about their commitment to pay more than USD$1 million to maintainers (including "a guaranteed minimum $10,000 over the next 24 months to select projects").
Here's my take on the new Tidelift subscription model, the "lifter" role, and whom this works for.
For software businesses, this provides that missing vendor relationship, SLA, release cadence expectations, and general peace of mind for all of that unseen infrastructure you depend on. It's often easier for businesses -- of many sizes -- to pay a regular fee than to put open source project management work, dependency-updating, compliance checking, dependency security audits, or FLOSS volunteer relations on the engineering schedule.
For individual programmers and community-maintained open source projects, Tidelift is a potential source of substantial income. As a Pythonist, I hope to reach people who are currently core code contributors to open source projects in Python, especially on the Libraries.io digital infrastructure/unseen infrastructure/improve the bus factor lists. And I would like to reach projects like the ones Nathaniel Smith calls out in a recent post:
that (1) require a modest but non-trivial amount of sustained, focused attention, and (2) have an impact that is large, but broad and diffuseand projects in the "wide open", "specialty library", and "upstream dependency" categories identified by the Open Tech Strategies report "Open Source Archetypes: A Framework For Purposeful Open Source".
For such people and projects, becoming a lifter is a promising model -- especially since the required tasks are fairly few, and are things maintainers should do anyway. I'm encouraged to see Jeff Forcier (maintainer of Fabric, Alabaster, and more) and Ned Batchelder's coverage.py getting onto the Tidelift platform.
And you can see estimated monthly income for your package right now. For some people, especially those whose healthcare doesn't depend on an employer, Tidelift payments plus some side consulting could be a sustainable, comfortable income.
Then there are folks like me whose contributions are only partially visible in commit logs (management, user support, testing, and so on), and groups that work together best as a team. Tidelift is also a potential source of income for us, but it's a little more complicated. Tidelift can send lifter payments to individuals, for-profits, and nonprofits, but: "If a package has multiple co-maintainers, you'll need to agree as a group on an approach." If you thought code of conduct conversations with your community were uncomfortable, wait till you bring up money! But, more seriously: I've been able to talk frankly with open source colleagues about thorny "who gets paid what?" questions, and if you're candid with your co-maintainers, the benefits may be pretty substantial. You can get advice on this conversation during the next live Tidelift web-based Q&A, Thursday, Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time (sign up at the bottom of the lifter info page).
Nonprofits, companies, and working groups that maintain projects can sign up now as lifters. Even if it's just a trickle of money right now, it might build over time and turn into enough to fund travel for an in-person sprint, contract work to improve continuous integration, an Outreachy internship, etc.
(One gap here: right now, Tidelift isn't great at supporting system-level packages and projects, like tools that get installed via apt or yum/DNF. I'm pretty sure that's something they're working on.)
What about noncommercial users or users who can't afford Tidelift subscriptions? The more lifters and subscribers sign up, the more those users benefit, too. Subscribers' funding means maintainers have time to make improvements that help everyone. And lifters agree to follow security, maintenance, and licensing best practices that also help everyone. Plus, Tidelift stewards libraries.io, a great resource for anyone who uses or develops open source (more on that). More money for Tidelift could mean libraries.io gets better too.
So I'm tooting a horn here and hoping more people sign up, because this is one of the more plausible ways open source sustainability could possibly work. Tidelift could be a real game-changer for the industry. Check it out.
* Examples: new competitors like Maintainer Mountaineer and OpenTeam, new funders like OSS Capital, and colleagues/referrals like Open Tech Strategies, VM Brasseur, Otter Tech, and Authentic Engine.