How Grey Is Your Valley: Making Money From Open Source

wordpress.jpgAutomattic founder Matt Mullenweg has spoken out against a number of open source projects for profiteering from their code.

The two examples Mullenweg cites are the open source forum platform Vanilla, which recently started including links in their code as a means to cover server and administration costs, and Pligg, which is currently on the market.

The post from Mullenweg follows an earlier crackdown in July against the inclusion of sponsored themes (themes that included paid text links) from the WordPress directories.

Given this crackdown on making revenue from an open source platform, the question then becomes: where is the line. How grey is your valley?

It’s important when considering the question to look at the different ways owners of open source platforms such as WordPress make money. Mullenweg was a co-founder of the WordPress open source platform community. Today, as well as maintaining a chief role with the WordPress open source community, Mullenweg is the founder, and according to their website “Chief BBQ Taste Tester” of Automattic. Automattic’s business model relies on two key products: and Akismet. relies entirely on the code base of the WordPress open source community. It is free to use for most, but they charge the top tier of users. On the whole it’s probably not a highly profitable business, yet none the less there is revenue. Without the WordPress code there is nothing.

Akismet is a service that relies on the failure of the WordPress code to be able to natively deal with comment spam. The service is free for personal use and a paid service for everyone else. As the co-founder and essentially the head of the WordPress open source movement, Mullenweg leads the initiatives by WordPress to combat comment spam. On the other hand as the head of Automattic he runs a company that profits from those very failings. The question then becomes: can one profit from the failings of an open source product whilst still leading that very code’s development?

I’m not suggesting that anything Mullenweg does is wrong; indeed for someone still very young he deserves much admiration for all he has achieved. Revenue from open source is much broader than the occasional sponsored link, something that Mullenweg continues to rally against. It was not that long ago that Mullenweg was sprung for including in excess of 150,000 spam pages on; it was an honest mistake but as they say, people who live in glass houses…

The question really is whether there is an acceptable line for advertising and conflicts of interest. Everyone is entitled to receive compensation for effort, including Mullenweg. I just remain unconvinced that those offering the odd paid link on a WordPress template is any different or worse than Mullenweg, who not only stuffs links to his own blog in every standard install of WordPress, but also runs a company that benefits from open source software, and at that the continued failures of that software to code serious issues.

Disclosure: Text Link Ads is a sponsor of this site. I also maintain a Text Link Ads account. Although the TLA crew may appreciate this post, I wasn’t asked to write it.