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Editor's Note: Funding the Open Source Developer

Detailing the Option Source Project

April 6, 2000

There's always been an conflict between the practical and the idealistic in the Open Source ethos, a conflict outlined by Eric Raymond in his description of the Cathedral and the Bazaar: how to contribute to the Open Source movement while also making a living. (Check it out here: it's a classic text and one that anyone serious about Open Source should read.) The conflict has been further exacerbated by those arguing for Free Software as opposed to Open Source software.

Those providing Linux distributions (Red Hat, MandrakeSoft, Corel) have established their own business model: create a distribution, give away a basic version, and then charge for a more fleshed-out distribution that includes documentation. The same model is followed by larger Linux-software vendors (Corel again, IBM, the folks behind Blender), who attempt to charge when adding value to a basic, freely available package.

But what about the smaller Open Source developer, for whom this model just won't work? There are a few projects underway that try to match developers with those needing software development:, for instance, has done a fine job of matching developers with customers in a bid-driven environment. In addition, VA Linux Systems' SourceForge is a good gathering place for developers, although SourceForge does nothing to actually market the work of these developers and doesn't provide anything past basic resources.

Enter Robert Heller and Merlin Software Technologies, which is upping the ante by funding Open Source projects with cash and Merlin stock options. The Option Source project, which is still under development, grew out of Merlin's own history as a commercial UNIX software vendor that entered the Linux sphere.

"One of the things you realize is that there are a lot of people that have written a lot of code that will never see the light of day," Heller says. "They don't really want to just give it away, but they don't have the resources to sell it."

The solution, Heller says, is an environment that gives developers the tools for creating and marketing Open Source software. The details are still in the works, but any tools created under this program must be released under a Merlin Open Source license (based on the Mozilla license). Projects will be submitted to an Option Source Advisory Council, which will then choose which projects will receive funding and further support.

Heller is putting his money where his mouth is: Merlin has dedicated $1.8 million in cash and 1 million shares to the project, and he's in discussions with investors regarding a private placement that would increase the size of the fund.

For Open Source to grow, it needs more projects like Option Source. Linux and the rest of the Open Source community has grown greatly with a huge amount of volunteer support, but at some point we need to reach the next level and make sure that programmers and volunteers can feed their families.

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