One way many Open Source hackers use to support themselves somewhat resembles the relationship between a Renaissance artist and his rich patron. Perhaps the modern version is sponsorship, but the analogy of patron and artist is a better description. The best example of this patron-and-artist model is the long relationship between Larry Wall, creator of the popular programming language Perl, and his former employer, the publishing house O'Reilly & Associates. One would be justified in wondering what the creator and developer of an Open Source programming language was doing as a full-time employee in a publishing house.
O'Reilly has become known as the publisher of top-notch computer guides. The company's trademark is to print an exotic animal on its book covers. For example, Programming Perl, the guide to Perl, has a camel on its front cover, which is why this Perl programmers' bible has been dubbed the camel book.
In the early nineties, the camel book had become compulsory reading for every Perl programmer. Tim O'Reilly, the CEO of the publishing house, realized that the more Perl programmers there were, the more camel books O'Reilly & Associates would sell - so whatever was good for Perl would be good for O'Reilly. Putting his thoughts into action, Tim gave Larry Wall a full-time job to develop Perl while, of course, writing a new edition of the camel book on the side. In addition to this mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, it was also good PR for the publishers to hire a well-known leader of the Open Source community. O'Reilly has subsequently become the book purveyor not only to Perl programmers but also to the whole Open Source community, supplying programming guides and other kinds of computer literature.
A somewhat similar relationship existed between Linus Torvalds and his former employer Transmeta, which is neither a Linux nor an Open Source company but a manufacturer of low-energy computer processors. When Linus got his degree from the University of Helsinki in 1997, Transmeta hired the undisputed leader of the Linux world and gave him free reign to use his working hours to develop Linux.
Although Transmeta itself had no use for Linux, hiring the world's best-known programmer was a smart move. No amount of money could have bought them such an effective marketing campaign. Media interest was only heightened by the fact that Transmeta had yet to publish a single product and was keeping all plans for its future a secret. It was even uncertain whether or not the company actually made processors or were up to something entirely different. By the time their first processors were made, everybody was bursting with curiosity, so much so that when the company held a press conference it was front-page news in the entire IT press, which meant there was no need for an advertising campaign.
But putting Linus on the payroll was not just charity, nor even a simple marketing gimmick for Transmeta. In principle, Transmeta's new processors were compatible with the processors used in Intel's x86 architecture. And since Linus Torvalds' Linux system had been made for those particular Intel processors, he was naturally one of the world's best authorities on the x86 architecture. Which means he was probably irreplaceable for Transmeta in solving various technical problems, although by his own admission he spent more than half his working day tinkering with his hobby, Linux.
It may not be hard to find patrons eager to support the best programmer in the world. But how about your average unknown hackers? Will somebody want to employ them? Even though the patron-and-artist model probably works best with the hacker stars, there are rank-and-file members of the Open Source community who have managed to make a living in a similar way.
Quanta Plus is an HTML editor that's part of the KDE windowing environment - or, more simply, it's a program you use to make web pages. The two main developers of the program are Eric Laffoon of the US and Andras Mantia of Hungary. Eric's day job is to grow and sell catnip, which apparently cats like so much it's possible to make a living out of growing it. In addition to supporting his own family, Eric sends some of his catnip revenue to Andras, who in turn works full-time on Quanta Plus and other KDE programs. The two men have calculated that this arrangement is more efficient than if both of them tried to develop Quanta Plus in addition to having day jobs. Of course, the difference in the standard of living between Eastern Europe and the US is what makes this particular collaboration possible. But irrespective of world economy, Eric is a true patron who puts money into the KDE project rather than contributing his free time.
KDE has also had a lot of positive publicity through a program called Adopt-a-Geek, a project initiated by KDE activist Scott Wheeler. The whole thing started with the observation that many industrious KDE programmers are students - either from Eastern Europe or from otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds - who do their valuable volunteer work on slow old computers simply because they're the best they can afford. The Adopt-a-Geek program strives to support these poorest of KDE programmers by supplying them with more efficient hardware to enable them to work more efficiently. Although the Adopt-a-Geek project only supplies computers and parts, not money, it is one example of how users of KDE software can help satisfy the material needs of the people who make the programs.1
Verdict: The patron-and-artist model, or sponsorship, has proved itself a workable way of putting food on the table for an Open Source hacker, but is probably best suited to the famous hacker stars than for your average code merchant. Ethically the model naturally scores an A+. It doesn't just pass ethical review, it practically oozes hacker ethics and the joy of sharing.