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Penny-pinchers undermine value of open source

The majority of IT runs on open source, but many of the people who maintain open source projects do not appear to get rewarded for their efforts

A new study has found that almost half of the people who maintain open source projects give their time and effort for free. The 2021 Tidelift open source maintainers survey, based on a survey of about 400 people who maintain open source projects, reported that 46% are not paid for their open source work.

Maintainers spend less than a quarter (24%) of their time building new features and writing new code, the survey found, and that about one-fifth of a maintainer’s time is spent reviewing contributions, issues, and generally responding to users. Tidelift also found that 14% of a maintainer’s work involves resolving conflicts and handling bugs. Managing technical debt and improving existing code accounts for 11% of maintainers’ workload.

But despite the hours they put in, a large proportion are paid very little, if anything, for their efforts.

Just over a quarter (27%) of the open source maintainers who took part in the survey said their employer paid them for some open source work, while just under a third (32%) received payment from a third party for their open source work.

Tidelift, which provides third-party payment for open source maintainers, said in the report: “Some people assume that many maintainers get paid to work on their projects by benevolent bosses who allow them to work on their projects as part of their day jobs. The data from our survey does not support this as the normal state of affairs.”

According to Tidelift, only 18% of the maintainers it has partnered with say their employer pays them to maintain their project, even though 71% have full-time jobs. The company said the data shows that a vast swath of maintainers are doing maintenance outside of working hours.

Almost half of respondents (49%) cited “not getting financially compensated enough or at all for my work” as the top reason to dislike being a maintainer, followed by “adds to my personal stress” (45%) and “feel underappreciated or like the work is thankless” (40%).

Interestingly, those who are being paid the most to maintain open source code are actually paid by their employer. The full-time employed maintainers, representing 64% of the study, were asked if open source maintenance work is an explicit part of their job responsibilities. Only a third said yes, but 20% of this group makes over $100,000 a year from being a maintainer. By contrast, no one without this core responsibility claimed more than $100,000 a year in income from maintenance work, said Tidelift.

More than half (59%) of maintainers surveyed have quit or considered quitting maintaining a project. The study also found that the more projects a maintainer is responsible for, the more likely they are to have considered quitting – over two-thirds (68%) of those who managed 10 projects or more have quit or considered quitting.

“The entire world relies on open source components to power applications, yet our data shows that the open source maintainers who create and keep open source running well are not properly compensated for the incredible value they provide,” said Donald Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Tidelift. “The path to a safer, healthier open source software supply chain starts with ensuring more volunteer maintainers get paid adequately for the crucial work they do.”

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