Contributing to open source projects

David Heinemeier Hansson presents a very gracious view of open source software in his keynote address at RailsConf 2019. And by gracious, I mean gracious in the theological sense.

He says at one point “If I were a Christian …” implying that he is not, but his philosophy of software echos the Christian idea of grace, a completely free gift rather than something earned. If you want to use my software without giving anything back in return, enjoy. If you’re motivated by gratitude, not obligation, to give something back, that’s great. Works follow grace. Works don’t earn grace.

I was thinking about making a donation to a particular open source project that has been important to my business when I stumbled on DHH’s talk. While watching it, I reconsidered that donation. The software is freely given, no strings attached. I don’t take anything from anyone else by using it. Etc. Then I made the donation anyway, out of a sense of gratitude rather than a sense of obligation.

My biggest contributions to open source software have been unconscious. I had no idea that code from this blog was being used in hundreds of open source projects until Tim Hopper pointed it out.

Most contributions to open source software are in kind, i.e. contributing code. But cash helps too. Here are a couple ideas if you’d like to donate a little cash.

You could buy some swag with a project logo on it, especially some of the more overpriced swag. Maybe your company rules would allow this that wouldn’t allow making a donation. It feels odd to deliberately buy something overpriced—they want how much for this coffee mug?!—but that’s how the project can make a little money.

If you’d like to make a cash donation, but you’re hesitating because it’s not tax deductible, here’s a possibility: deduct your own tax. Give the after-tax amount that corresponds to the amount you would have given before taxes. For example, suppose you’d like to donate $100 cash if it were tax deductible, and suppose that your marginal tax rate is 30%. Then donate $70. It’s the same to you as donating $100 and saving $30 on your taxes.

Disclaimer: I am not an accountant or a tax attorney. And in case it ever needs to be said, I’m not a lepidopterist, auto mechanic, or cosmetologist either.