Monday, 17 June 2019 06:30

Move to pay Debian devs for project work rears its head again

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Move to pay Debian devs for project work rears its head again Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

The idea of paying developers to work on Debian GNU/Linux packages has reared its head again, with senior developer Raphael Hertzog proposing that project funds be used for the purpose.

Hertzog made the suggestion in a reply to a post on one of the project's mailing lists which was part of a thread on the subject "Why do we take so long to realise good ideas?"

"Use the $300,000 on our bank accounts?", he wrote, adding that he had heard of another US$300,000 donation made by Google to the project though he was unable to find any publicly accessible reference to it.

The idea of paying developers for their work on what is a community project was raised 13 years ago by former project leader Anthony Towns, with the reason being the speeding up of development so that releases could take place sooner. The idea did not prove very popular as it was meant to be run outside the project proper and was meant to pay core members for their work.

Apart from Towns, the Dunc board included Hertzog, Steve McIntyre, one of the founders of the Debian UK Society, Ted Ts'o, a founding member of the Free Standards Group, and Joey Hess, a major Debian contributor for most of the 13 years of the project (he left the project in 2014).

Hertzog is associated with the Freexian project which funds Debian developers to work on long-term support for the distribution. This project is understood to be much more popular than Towns' idea, though it, again, is not universally proper.

Martin Michlmayr, one of the candidates who contested the election for leader, held in April, raised the idea of payment for work on the project in his manifesto, saying: "While there are some paid opportunities around Debian, I believe they are currently too scarce and that we can take a number of actions so more contributors can make Debian their careers."

Current Debian leader Sam Hartman had said in the lead-up to the elections that he was prepared to discuss this idea, though he was not going to drive it himself.

The Debian project lives on donations it gets from various organisations; some companies like HP, where senior developer Bdale Garbee was for many years the head of open source, have also contributed over the years. Debian's funds are managed by the organisation Software in the Public Interest, and recent accounts show that the organisation has a little more than US$707,600 as a balance. Other donations come in to manage the annual conference.

Some Debian developers, who also double up as developers for Ubuntu, the most widely used distribution, and one that is based on Debian, are paid by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

Asked for his take, Hartman told iTWire: "Unlike most other Linux distributions, Debian is a community effort. While some of our developers are paid for their work on Debian, they are not paid by the project or by any one organisation. The time people spend on Debian is the most precious commodity in our community. By spending time, you can advance the aspects of Debian you most care about."

He said the project would love to find ways to fund more work on Debian. "The more people spending time on Debian, the more great work we'll be able to do. However we need to find ways to do that while preserving the community nature of our project. If we directly paid people to improve our operating system, we would change our community from one based on the time people commit to one based on funding. Many of us believe that would take away something essential."

And he added: "We look forward to finding better ways to connect Debian community members with sources of funding without direct project involvement. Some third-party organisations do fund Debian developers to help the community as a whole. As an example, our long-term support efforts are funded this way based on the support of these third-party organisations and their generous sponsors. I hope we can find ways to learn from this success and fund more people to work on Debian.

"The project is currently discussing directly offering contracts or grants to work on projects that are not directly related to our operating system. If we do move forward on these efforts we are likely to start with carefully scoped experiments."

Update, 18 June: Contacted for comment, long-time Debian developer Russell Coker said the Dunc tank "debacle" had shown that the idea was not viable.

"I don't think things have changed in any way to make it viable," the Melbourne-based Russell said. "If companies like HP were to decide to sponsor Debian by paying DDs instead of donating to project funds then that would be uncontroversial and useful.

"I also don't think it would be good for the DPL to solicit such sponsorship from companies like HP for other DDs. But I think it would be fine for individual DDs to do so on their own behalf. For example if any company wants to sponsor some of my time towards improving SE Linux support in Debian they can email me and we can discuss that possibility."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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