Making money as a libre software programmer

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Contrary to what some may believe, working in libre software does not mean you cannot make money as a programmer. Libre software is not anti-business. Richard Stallman used to live on selling tape copies of GNU Emacs for $150 back when internet connectivity was rare. Later, he made enough money customizing GNU software that he was able to only work seven weeks out of the year and spend the rest of year working on important free software projects.

Here are ways programmers could make money today while respecting user freedom. You will also find case studies exemplifying each business model. Successful projects and programmers often employ a mix of these methods. Makers of proprietary software also employ these methods sometimes to increase revenue or because they do not make enough money from licenses due to unauthorized copying. However, we do not list proprietary software here.

Work on the internal software of a company

Private software is libre. This is a common job for programmers already.

Write or customize libre software on a contract basis

Customization services are commonly offered by software companies. They call it “open source customization”, but we reject this terminology.

Write or customize libre software for an online service

Service sales fund development. Excludes Service as a Software Substitute

Case studies

Write or customize libre software for a hardware product

Product sales fund development.

Case studies

  • Libreboot/MiniFree
  • PureOS/Purism Note: Purism hardware is not yet generally recommendable because of proprietary firmware. However, PureOS is FSF-endorsed.

Sponsorship

Organizations provide funds and benefit from the software and marketing.

Case studies

Trademark Licensing

Your trademark is licensed to service providers in exchange for a fee.

Case studies

Crowd-funding

Can be one-off or recurring.

Case studies

Support

Companies or organizations subscribe for commercial support for a specific software. The income is then used to fund the development of that specific software.

Case studies

Subscriptions

End-users make payments to receive updates and new releases.

Case studies

Ardour

Pay what you want distribution

End-users pay for a ready-to-run supported program from an official source.

Case studies

Sell a limited run of physical copies

Works well for games. Gives collector value to the product.

Case studies

  • independent art and music

Funding from charities

In the United States, non-profit 501(c)3 charities will sometimes fund software development

Case studies

Funding from other non-profit organizations

In the United States, 501(c)(6) organizations include Business leagues, Chambers of commerce, Real estate boards, Boards of trade, and Professional football leagues. Business leagues represent the interests of an industry. Most industries would benefit from funding some libre software projects. Similarly, Chambers of commerce represent the interests of all industry in a trade community. Most would also benefit from funding some libre software projects.

Case Studies

Grants

Grants are monetary gifts that do not require repayment. Oftentimes the grantmaker receives other benefits from giving you the grant, such as access to you, demonstration of impact, a report of your work, or tax benefits.

Grants can come from many places, including companies, software foundations, philanthropic foundations, and the government. The technical and legal aspects of a grant vary greatly depending on where it comes from. For example, a company might give you a "grant" but legally treat it as a consulting invoice. A philanthropic foundation can only make grants to nonprofits, so you would need to be a nonprofit yourself, or (more commonly) find a nonprofit to sponsor you. If you're unfamiliar with grants, the best way to understand how grants work is to talk to someone who has received one before.

Case Studies

This page was a featured resource in July 2019.