'Tis the season for givingWhether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Pancha Ganapati, Hogmanay, Newtonmas, or simply the end of the Gregorian year, odds are that you're giving gifts some time around now. We give gifts to family; we give gifts to friends; we donate to charities; and many people also offer up tithes to religious institutions. Gifts to individuals are a social bonding ritual — the voluntary transfer of wealth signals a lower bound on the value we place on a relationship, and the giving of non-monetary gifts in particular can be a way to communicate our level of personal understanding — but these do not apply to charitable and religious donations. For those, I think an entirely different explanation is required: We pay voluntary taxes in order to help create the world we want to live in.
This also applies to companies. I run an online backup service, and for the past two years I've donated all of the profits made during the month of December to the FreeBSD Foundation; I'm going to be doing the same thing this year too. I'm not doing this just because I'm a FreeBSD developer, because I use FreeBSD personally, or because I would never have launched Tarsnap if I hadn't been able to build on the open source code in FreeBSD: I'm doing it because I think supporting FreeBSD development will make the world a better place for both Tarsnap and many other startup companies.
I'm not alone in believing in corporate support of open source software, either. NetApp and Hudson River Trading, both major FreeBSD users, have each made donations of $50,000 or more in each of the past 3 years, and many other companies regularly donate. Some open source software organizations have much longer lists of major donors. And last year Gabriel Weinberg launched a FOSS Tithing movement by pledging that DuckDuckGo would tithe in support of open source software every year.
Most internet startup companies today would never exist without open source software. As Paul Graham has noted, open source software is one of the big reasons why it's now possible to launch a startup with just $20k and a few months of coding; with high quality free operating systems, databases and datastores, application frameworks, web servers and caches, it's now easy to build companies which would have been nearly impossible a decade ago. It would be easy to say that startup companies should contribute back to open source projects out of simple gratitude, but I know it can be hard to justify making business decisions on that basis alone. Instead, I'd like to ask the startup community to look to the future: Think about how much open source has helped you, and help to build a better world — one where open source will be able to help you even more.
And remember that we live in a world where most startup founders end up launching several companies over their careers: If the past decade of open source software development has made your current startup company possible, just think how much the next decade of open source software development will help your next startup company.
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