Cash for code – are prizes the right model for community development?

Sun’s plan to award open source developers with prizes is an interesting one and reaction has on the whole been good, but I can’t help wondering if it is the right way to reward community developers for their efforts.

In May this year Sun’s executive vice president for software, Rich Green, had cast doubts on the sustainability of the community development model if large corporations continued to make money from their efforts without directly contributing back.

To be clear, anything that gives back to the community is a good thing, and Sun is to be applauded for doing anything at all. My intention is not to criticize Sun’s effort, but it does raise a broader question about whether cash prizes are the best way to motivate open source development.

Dana Blankenhorn, for one, is not convinced, making a comparison with TV talent shows such as Project Runway and American Idol. “However much the contestants benefit, the sponsors benefit far more. Kelly Clarkson will never have the fortune Simon Cowell has,” he notes. “I guess my point is that in the end contests like this re-establish proprietary business relationships that open source seeks to tear down. Maybe they’re as natural as predator and prey. Maybe I’m just being a Scrooge.”

Maybe so, but there is another point about whether a competition is the best way of rewarding open source effort. It could be argued that if the winners of TV talent shows like American Idol (or Pop Idol in the UK) were truly talented they would more than likely have found a measure of success through other channels (although it might take a little longer for them to get noticed).

Could the same not be said of offering cash prizes for innovative open source development? If the idea is truly innovative, would it not find its way to to the development tree without the promise of financial reward? Previous surveys have indicated that personal gratification and improved skills are greater motivations for open source developers than direct financial returns.

And where are the rewards for those developers doing the important but less attractive grunt work? (There’s a reason why there’s no such thing as “Roadie Idol”). I suppose in some ways the likes of Sun and IBM are already engaged in funding that work through their salaried developers but the OSDL (now Linux Foundation) saw the need to create a Fellowship Fund to pay someone to take on the arduous and unpopular task of Linux kernel documentation.

Sun’s offer is not unique of course. Glyn Moody makes a comparison with Google’s Summer of Code, while noting that “unlike Google’s Summer of Code programme, which is basically to foster generic open source among young hackers, Sun’s effort is targeted at its own projects”.

From that perspective, Sun’s Open Source Community Innovation Awards Program is perhaps more comparable with Google’s Android Developer Challenge or even the Ingres Million Dollar Challenge CA ran before spinning off Ingres as an independent concern.

The difference between those programs and what Sun is doing is that they are/were targeted at creating a community around emerging open source projects, rather than established efforts such as OpenSolaris,, GlassFish, NetBeans, OpenSparc and OpenJDK.

I can see the value for vendors like Google and Ingres of using cash prizes to create community interest in new projects. I’m just not convinced that it’s a model that also fits established projects and initiatives. If anyone has any experience in this regard, I’d be interested to hear about it.


#1 Movies and Film Blog » Cash for code - are prizes the right model for community development? on 12.06.07 at 12:22 pm

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#2 Cash for code - are prizes the right model for community development? — Google Android on 12.06.07 at 2:49 pm

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#3 451 CAOS Theory » More details on Sun’s open source grants on 06.09.08 at 5:32 am

[…] $1m Open Source Innovation Award, which is especially worth mentioning as it addresses some of the questions I raised last week about whether prizes are the right model for community […]