Open Source Profit Sharing: How Do You Do It?

Lately, one of the questions that I find myself wrestling with is what’s considered respectful and acceptable for charging for support or accepting donations for open source plugins?

Or, more simply, what’s an ideal model for open source profit sharing when you’ve received contributions to open source plugins?

A Disclaimer (For The Paranoid!)

To be clear, this question is completely motivated by a hypothetical situation. Although all WordPress plugins that I’ve released are, by default, open source under the GPL, I’ve received zero code contributions to them (only language files for translations for which we’ve brokered deals).

Secondly, I have one plugin available on GitHub and though it has received a few pull requests, I’ve received no donations for this plugin since placing it on GitHub.

Donations For Their Work?

That said, here’s the question

If I develop and release an open source plugin, then several others contribute to it, and I personally receive donations for it, what’s the proper way to share that income since I’m no longer responsible for all of the work?

I’ve my own thoughts that I’d love to discuss in the comments, but for all intents and purposes let’s assume that all donations are relatively small.

By that, I mean that they range anywhere from $10 to $50.

The initial options, though viable, present inherent problems:.

  • Keep the donations for myself. Though this is morally subjective, this is simply greed.
  • Split the donations evenly with those that have contributed. How often do you split income? Is it just for the version to which they contributed? What if they just cleaned up some white space? What if they added a single screenshot?
  • Split the donations based on a percentage of the work others have contributed. This is the “paid by lines of code” problem. That is, just because someone wrote a lot of code doesn’t mean that someone who wrote fewer lines did less work.

Obviously, if the plugin, theme, or application grew to a certain size then you’d likely want to grow it into some type of small business or legal entity for managing residual income, tax purposes, distributions and/or payroll and all of that fun stuff.

But that scenario isn’t what I’m talking about.

So, as I mentioned early in the post, what’s considered acceptable and respectable for sharing income with others who have contributed to your work?

7 Replies to “Open Source Profit Sharing: How Do You Do It?”

    1. Absolutely.

      But then, what happens when those code contributions come in and are baked into the next version, then I – that is, being the primary developer – receive monetary compensation?

      Are you saying that I contribute back to one of their projects?

      1. No, I’m saying that perhaps in some cases code contributions should be seen as donations, where nothing is expected in return. There are a number of legitimate reasons why one might want to donate code to a project and expect (and get) no money in return, even if the project starts receiving monetary donations down the road.

        For a moment, assume that (in some cases) monetary contributions and code contributions are both donations, just in different mediums. You certainly wouldn’t “profit-share” with people who had donated money in the past, right? Ignoring the fact that you’d get a bit of circular logic going on (do you give them part of their money back?), it’s obviously a bit silly – they were donating, not investing.

        Similarly, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that some (many? most?) code contributions to small OSS projects are seen by the contributors as donations, not investments

        I’m certainly not suggesting my line of reasoning applies to all situations, but I think it’s a valid way of approaching the situation for many small projects.

  1. There is always the “put all of the money back into the community” option. Barring losing all income to that though, it might be an idea to discuss this upfront with contributors, though I imagine also not feasible in most cases.

    Exposure for all of the contributors could be of value to them. Not to think of it in crass terms, but marketers pay money for link placement. I imagine that some devs would consider trading work for promotion fair.

  2. For projects making small profits and many contributors, it just doesn’t even seem worth the effort.

    For projects making small profits and a few contributors, it still doesn’t really seem worth it. Assuming that one or two of the contributors have contributed a significant percentage to the project a) you might work out some way to say thanks (even monetarily) without breaking out the calculator. I know when I contribute to an open-source project I’m not looking for any reward nor do I expect one if the project does well. My contribution is best rewarded by the project lead’s continued dedication and maintenance of the project.

    For projects making big profits and any number of contributors, I think we start getting into territory where profit-sharing might actually make sense. First things first, I’d probably only distribute the profits quarterly to mitigate some of the administrative hassle. As far as how much each person gets, I might break it up into tiers. I think there would be a bottom tier that would not receive a monetary award. The tiers above that would be percentage ranges based on the contribution level with each tier getting a specified percentage of the profit which is then split equally among the contributors in that range.

  3. Tom, I will comment on what I know which is songwriting and sharing of royalties. It used to be that we all shared in such percentages according to what we brought to the song. And actually, this is still being done. We setup the percentages on a split sheet and that’s the end. But most recently, the practice is that everyone gets a share. So if there are 3 composers, then we share 33.33% of the royalties and we call it… It’s just a simpler way.

    I do understand that sometimes some people contribute more / less, but really, we all contribute for the good of the song / project and we all get a fair share from that contribution.

    What do you think?

  4. Most of the contributions are so small that I don’t think it’s worth it (to divvy them up). With that said, I’ve got a number of people that I’ll be taking out for dinner/beer/whatever when we meet. So I’d still be spreading some love around.

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