Open source developers changed the face of software development and they are some of the most prolific coders in the world. However, it’s not all coding and user interface changes that make open source developers who they are; it’s the need to get paid. So how do they make money?
Some people might think that open source developers are just a bunch of volunteers who write code in their dorm rooms, but it’s actually much more complex. There’s no way to live off of the small amount they get from writing the actual code without making money on the side. In this article, we’ll be exploring the various ways you can make money from open source software.
Bug bounty programs
Bug hunting, or as it’s usually known, bug bounty programs, is a way of earning money either by reporting errors on other systems or by solving them and submitting your pull requests with the code that fixes them. These programs are usually part of the entire vulnerability audit of the software being tested and accompany other internal processes the developers are implementing.
There are very big companies who submit their products for this type of treatment, and when we say “big,” we’re not kidding. With a basic search, we can find some interesting options, but in order to keep with the theme of “making money from open source,” here are some examples of high-paying organizations with bug bounty programs on their open-source products:
- Mozilla: They have two main programs, one for their actual software and one for their websites. Offering to pay up to $10,000 on the first one and up to $5,000 on the latter.
- Apache: This web server is probably known to most (if not all) back-end developers. Through its program it pays bounties of up to $3,000 to those able to solve the most critical bugs.
- Google Android: Also interested in making the most stable and secure mobile OS out there, Google offers up to $150,000 dollars for the most critical problems found and solved (yes, you read that number right).
There are many different lists of bug bounty programs, but you can find a good, up-to-date one on this website. Overall, this option is quite lucrative if you are able to put in the hours. That being said, you also need to specialize your knowledge and focus on security bugs if you want to reap the big rewards.
Last but certainly not least, aside from bug bounties, you can also get paid by fulfilling OSS (open-source software) bounties over at BOSS, a relatively new initiative that has lots of potential. Here, project owners can submit development tasks that they pay for on completion. This is certainly not as lucrative as the above programs but also requires less of a focus on security and can be tackled with a more generic software development profile.
While not typically used by large for-profit companies, some individual developers make pretty good money by taking donations for their open source work. Patreon, GitHub, and Buy Me A Coffee are all popular platforms that allow individuals and businesses to help support open source projects that they use or want to see maintained.
The downside to this model is that it’s really hard to build predictable, sustainable income from it. Some people will heavily use and benefit from updates while never paying the creators, and this frustrates those who do support the project. If you’ve ever asked your boss if you can start paying for some of the free, open source software you use at work, you know how tough this can be to sell.
Software as a Service
An open source project that has generated plenty of demand can choose to offer a Software as a Service (SaaS) business model. This model is most viable for projects that offer a complete application, such as a publishing platform, monitoring tool, or marketing automation tool.
Developers can choose to host the software themselves. However, this means that they have to take care of security, security, and maintenance.
It’s often much easier and cheaper to pay for a managed offering under a SaaS model. Developers pay a monthly fee to use the hosted solution. Therefore, they can focus on the tool itself instead of all maintenance-related tasks. Moreover, a marketing or content team often doesn’t have the required technical knowledge to host a solution themselves. For that reason, a SaaS solution is a great alternative to make money from open source software.
Hosted Version of the Product
Some open source projects allow you to run their software on your own servers for free, but they’ll charge you for a hosted version. For example, you can deploy n8n.io to an AWS or DigitalOcean machine and keep it running on your own, or you can sign up for their hosted version and avoid the hassle of maintaining servers.
While this tactic won’t work for every open source project, it’s a very popular option. It offers a clear delineation between the paid and free versions of the product, and can be bundled with other features like support and training. The downside is that your margins are never going to be very high. If you charge too much, users will be able to justify the cost of maintaining their own servers.
Sell associated content
Following on from point #3, you could also look at writing content for OSS rather than maintaining it or providing direct support for a product. If this sounds appealing, look for popular, or even quickly rising, OSS products and start creating user tutorials for them.
Here are a few examples of how you can create content for OSS products:
- Write and sell books about them. This can be done both through self-publishing or by pitching topics to publishers. The latter will take care of the editorial process and publishing steps, letting you focus on the writing. You’ll have to split the earnings with them, of course, but it will be worth it.
- Create video courses for platforms such as Udemy and Pluralsight. Doing this will generate passive income in the same way books do after you’ve published them. Plus, these platforms usually provide video training.
- Write sponsored posts about the products. This does not mean the owner of the open-source product will always pay you to write these posts, rather that some blogs will be interested in the topic and will be willing to pay writers to provide content about other topics.
In all these cases, it’s important to understand that, to make money from an open-source product, you don’t really need to write code. You can provide user-specific content based on these products and still make money.
Open source projects are typically developed in a volunteer environment. This means that developers need to find different ways to make money with their skills, often with mixed results.