14.1 Charitable Open Source Orgs

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Of course, there are some open source charities. Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity that raises money and solicits tax-deductible donations. This money is used to pay for computers, overhead, and the salaries of young programmers who have great ideas for free software. The Debian Project also has a charitable arm known as Software in the Public Interest that raises money and computer equipment to support the creation of more free software.

These organizations are certainly part of the world of tax deductions, fund-raisers, and the charity-industrial complex. The Free Software Foundation, for instance, notes that you can arrange for all or part of your gift to the United Way to go to the Foundation.

But there are differences, too. Stallman, for instance, is proud of the fact that he accepts no salary or travel reimbursement from the Free Software Foundation. He works 2 months a year to support himself and then donates the other 10 months a year to raising money to support other programmers to work on Foundation projects.

Their budgets are pretty manageable as well. Perens notes that Debian's budget is about $10,000 a year, and this is spent largely on distributing the software. Servers that support plenty of traffic cost a fair amount of money, but the group does get donations of hardware and bandwidth. The group also presses a large number of CD-ROMs with the software.

The groups also make a point of insisting that good code is more valuable than money. The Free Software Foundation, for instance, lists projects that need work next to its call for money. Volunteers are needed to write documentation, test software, organize the office, and also write more code.

Jordan Hubbard, the director of the FreeBSD project, says that money is not always the best gift. "I'll take people over six-digit sums of donations almost any day," he says, and explains that FreeBSD is encouraging companies to donate some of the spare time of its employees. He suggests that companies assign a worker to the FreeBSD project for a month or two if there is time to spare.

"Employees also give us a window into what that company's needs are. All of those co-opted employees bring back the needs of their jobsite. Those are really valuable working relationships," he continues.
Hubbard has also found that money is often not the best motivator. Hardware, it turns out, often works well at extracting work out of programmers. He likes to ship a programmer one of the newest peripherals like a DVD drive or a joystick and ask him to write a driver for the technology in exchange. "It's so much more cost-effective to buy someone a $500 piece of hardware, which in turn motivates him to donate thousands of dollars worth of work, something we probably couldn't pay for anyway," he says.

Money is still important, however, to take care of all the jobs that can't be accomplished by piquing someone's curiosity. "The area we need the most contributions for are infrastructure. Secretarial things are no fun to do and you don't want to make volunteers do it," he says.

All of these charitable organizations are bound to grow in the next several years as the free software movement becomes more sophisticated. In some cases it will be because the hackers who loved playing with computers will discover that the tax system is just another pile of code filled with bugs looking to be hacked. In most cases, though, I think it will be because large companies with their sophisticated tax attorneys will become interested. I would not be surprised if a future version of this book includes a very cynical treatment of the tax habits of some open source organizations. Once an idea reaches a critical mass, it is impossible to shield it from the forces of minor and major corruption.