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Tidelift Pays Open Source Maintainers to Provide Enterprise-Grade Guarantees

Sep 18th, 2018 9:00am by
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While many open source projects have parent companies that offer enterprise-grade support and features, others do not. And contributors to those projects generally do so on their own time and without compensation. Tidelift, a Boston-based startup focused on “making open source software better for everyone,” aims to change that by creating a gig economy-type model in which user subscription fees go to pay maintainers of the software.

“[We want to add] some capabilities that people building with open source software need: guarantees that the software will be kept secure, maintained on an ongoing basis, verification of where it came from, who wrote it, the licensing,” said Donald Fischer, co-founder and CEO. The model is along the lines of Uber or AirBnB, he said.

The company recently reached the $1 million milestone in funding available to those who maintain open source software projects.

“We saw an opportunity, a gap in the market. For some open source projects … There’s nobody to go to for even the basic hygiene-level issues,” he said.

Fischer, along with and co-founders Havoc PenningtonJeremy Katz and Luis Villa, have long histories in open source, including being part of development of the open source model used for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). In May, Tidelift announced a $15 million Series A investment led by General Catalyst, Foundry Group, and former Red Hat Chairman and CEO Matthew Szulik.

“We partner directly with the creators of the software,” Fischer said. “We say, ‘If you’re willing to maintain the software to this standard — and we write what that standard means — we’ll pay you to do it.’

We go to the people who know that software best, the creators — they’re generally already doing these activities, but not in a uniform and dependable way. In conjunction with our subscribers, and on their behalf, we create the incentive for those maintainers to spend that extra care to look after the open source component.”

That gives the subscribers more confidence that the open source they’re probably already using is better looked after, he said.

“On the subscriber side, we give them a software tool that integrates with their software-development process, sort of attaches to their source-code repository, keeps an eye on the packages being pulled into the applications they’re building and gives them continuous feedback on that,” he said.

“One difference between us and other open source scanners is that we don’t just tell subscribers that there’s a problem; we go to the maintainers and say, ‘Hey, work with us to resolve it.’ Rather than Red Hat supporting RHEL, it’s a wide array of open source software that’s actively used by software developers,” he said.

Maintainers are paid not for having created open source software, but for completing tasks that Tidelift specifies relating to security, maintenance, licensing and marketing. Rather than going into a general fund, subscription fees go to pay maintainers for the specific packages the customer uses.

Participating maintainers keep full control of their packages and technical roadmaps, and provide maintenance for their software, not help desk or consulting services. Payment depends on the number of subscribers and the amount of work required. Maintainers can also get referral bonuses for each subscriber signed up.

It’s initially focusing on support for packages in the JavaScript, Java, Python, PHP, and Ruby programming language ecosystems. Top packages featured today include Vue, Material-UI, Babel, Gulp, Fabric, and Celery.

The company admits that at this early stage, the amount paid isn’t huge. The income estimate for maintainers for the project Vue, for instance, is $1,000 a month. The company also has pre-approved a select group of open source packages for guaranteed minimum payments of $10,000 each. There’s a search tool on the website to find payment estimates for specific packages.

It’s tough to build a business around open source software, much of which is not specifically related to the technology, Fischer said.

“We’re building that business once and offering it as a shared service, so they can focus on their project and we’ll be the business front end, if you will,” he said.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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