• Commercial Freedom Forges

last modified November 12, 2019 by strypey

A few years ago, Loom.io was established to develop web-based, free code, decision-making software. Instead of following the for-benefit "Foundation" model that has been standard in free code development since the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, they set up as a worker-owned cooperative, employing paid staff who supervise and support each others' work in radically democratic ways. Since then, a lot of people have become curious about how many software businesses are out there paying staff to develop free code in the public interest, how they earn revenue, and how sustainable the different revenue models seem to be. At some point, this various revenue models at work in this list will be analyzed, and the list separated into categories. For now, I'm just collecting examples.

Some businesses develop free code software, and others resell it. Now, this isn't a clear division, because a lot of free code software is built from free code components built and maintained by others, and resellers often tweak the software they sell and send good quality bug reports and patches upstream. But it's still probably useful to have two lists, businesses that mainly develop their own software (including offering a hosted service on top of it), and businesses that mainly resell software developed by others (including offering a hosted service on top of it). For example Automattic go in the first list, other companies that run commercial WordPress farms go in the second list, even if their engineers are contributors to WP as an open source project.

There may be detailed lists out there already, but a web search didn't find them straight away, so I'm going to scratch this itch and see where it leads. Some lists and resources I've drawn on to assemble this list:


Primary Developers

  • Automattic - develop WordPress and offer commercial hosting for WordPress blogs.
  • BuckyBox - started as a proprietary SaaSS social enterprise, began releasing their source code in ? A member of the Enspiral network.
  • Collabora - significant contributors to LibreOffice, especially the online version (see CollaboraOnline). Revenue model is based on development of new free code and commercial hosting services based on new and existing free code, such as selling a Collabora branded versions of LibreOffice desktop/ online to companies that can afford the extras.
  • CommitChange - develop Houdini Project, a fundraising and simple CRM for non-profits, and provide paid hosting for it
  • Discourse - develop the Discourse (GPLv2) forum software. Revenue comes from commercial hosting of their software.
  • Dreamwidth - free code and user-respecting replacement for LiveJournal, based on pre-2008 LJ source code. They operate as a privately owned, limited liability company (Dreamwidth Studios, LLC) registered in Maryland, USA. "The site is 100% financed by paid accounts and other payments made through the Dreamwidth shop...".
  • Duraspace - stewards the development of institutional repository software (Fedora, DSpace, and Vivo) aimed at universities and other higher learning institutions. They offer hosted instances of the various projects they umbrella, as commercial services.
  • GitLab - their Community Edition is a fully free code replacement for GH. Revenue is derived from commercial hosting or licensing of GitLab instances for companies that can afford the extras in their Enterprise Edition, which includes some code under a 'source available' model.
  • Happy Dev - a French workers cooperative who develop Startin'Blox.
  • JMP - a fully free code service allowing a user with a web browser and an internet connection to communicate with people on landlines and cell phones.
  • Kaltura - a free code, online, video editing and hosting platform. Revenue is derived from commercial hosting of Kaltura instances, and integration work, including for educational institutions.
  • Kuali - a university administration platform, originally developed by a consortium of US institutions as a "community source" project
  • Loom.io (AGPLv3) - web-based, decision-making platform. Pricing is based on ability to pay, with one-on-one helpdesk and hosting extras offered for user organisations which can afford to pay.
  • Matomo (formerly Piwik, GPLv3) - develop and host a web analytics engine, including a tag manager.
  • MatterMost - free code replacement for Slack (see Slacking Off ). Revenue is derived from commercial hosting of MatterMost instances for companies that can afford the extras.
  • Mautic (GPLv3+) - develop and host an email marketing system.
  • Nilenso - an Indian cooperative that developers free code and hosts Kulu, Review, and Relay (a fork of Mattermost)
  • OnlineGroups - develop and host GroupServer (ZPLv2.1), a web-based email group hosting platform. Enterprise is sustained by commercial hosting, although selected not-for-profit projects are given gratis hosting, including the NZ Open Source Society, and CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ.
  • ProcessMaker Inc. - Revenue is derived from commercial hosting of ProcessMaker instances for companies that can afford the extras.
  • ShareTribe ("MIT") - develop a CMS for platform cooperatives. Revenue is derived from providing commercial hosting and customization for sites based on their software.
  • SilverStripe - develop the SilverStripe CMS, offer commercial services based around it to government and corporate clients.
  • Tech Support Coop - develop the CORE-POS Point-of-Sale (POS) system for grocery cooperatives, a fork of IS4C (GPL). Revenue is derived from hosting and helpdesk support for grocery store coops that use the system.
  • TotaraLMS - develop the Totara Learning Management System (LSM). Revenue is derived from providing commercial hosting to institutional users.

Secondary Developers and Service Providers

  • Agaric - a US-based worker-owned cooperative who build websites and other internet services for clients, using free code software to which they contribute, as well as providing "training and consultation".
  • Bootlin (formerly Free Electrons) - a company based on France who do engineering and training related to embedded Linux
  • Catalyst - a company based in Aotearoa (NZ) developing tech solutions for government and enterprise, often based on existing free code software. They also offer hosting based on OpenStack under the name CatalystCloud.
  • CoLab - a network of freelancers who form working teams to implement free code for clients.
  • Masto.host - hosts custom Mastodon instances for a monthly fee.
  • Outlandish - an English tech team who implement free code for clients (member of CoTech)
  • Web Architects - an English tech team who implement free code for clients (member of CoTech)

Widely used packages for which there is a multi-vendor market

  • Drupal support - companies offering commercial support for Drupal websites.
  • Koha support - companies offering commercial support for Koha in libraries.
  • Mahara support - companies offering commercial support for Mahara in educational institutions.
  • Moodle Parners - companies offering commercial support for Moodle in educational institutions.
  • Apero support - companies offering commercial support for Sakai and other Apero projects in educational institutions.


Organizations that support the work of commercial developers

  • Collaborative Technology Alliance (CTA) - an association of social enterprise groups producing free code apps, including many involved in Enspiral. Many of them could be added to the primary developers list.
  • CoTech (Cooperative Technologists) - a network of tech cooperatives based in the UK (as of 2018, mainly England). Many of them could be added to the secondary developers list.
  • Enspiral - a multinational cooperation made up of smaller social enterprise tech companies, including Loomio, BuckyBox, and Chalke, many of which could be added to either the primary or secondary developers lists. Enspiral is commercial yet not-for-profit, simply provides services that allow small companies to gaining the benefits of pooling resources that can traditionally only be obtained by getting acquired or merging with a larger company, while remaining self-owned, and autonomous.
  • Tech Coop Network (North American Technology Workers Cooperatives) - pretty much what it says on the tin. Many of them could be added to the secondary developers list.

Failed Forges

It can be just as important, if not more important, to learn from failed experiments as it is to be inspired by successful ones.

Please note: by "failed"  I simply mean relevant businesses that have shut down, or been bought up by larger companies. This doesn't mean that all the projects they worked on were failures, or that anyone involved is a failure. In some cases a merger with another company may be considered a success, and I would argue that knowing when to walk away from a failed experiment is an example of sound professional judgement.

  • Acquia - offer commercial hosting of Drupal, founded by Drupal creator Dries Buytaert. Acquired by venture capitalists in 2019.
  • CivicSpace Labs - an early experiment in web development freelancers forming a small, focused shop to deploy free code for clients. Grew out of the DeanSpace project to support the re-election campaign of Governor Howard Dean. Their website is still up, but appears to be long out-of-date. According to a note on a Wikipedia talk page, some of the people involved were Lynn Siprelle, Chris Messina, and Aldon Hynes, and the CivicSpace software was incorporated into Drupal 5 and CiviCRM.
  • Egressive (acquired by Catalyst) - a Drupal deployment company based in Ōtautahi (Christchurch), Aotearoa (NZ). Founder Dave Lane worked for Catalyst during the transition, and is now working as a technology officer for the Open Educational Resources Foundation.
  • GeekGene - an early experiment (2004) in web development freelancers forming a small, focused shop to deploy free code for clients. Their website is still up, but appears to be long out-of-date. Founder Arthur Brock and developer David Braden are now working on Holo/ HoloChain.
  • MySQL (acquired by Sun Microsystems) - developed the MySQL (GPL) database software, often used in the late 90s and 2000s with PHP and Apache on a GNU-Linux server (commonly known as the "LAMP stack"). Their revenue model includes selling proprietary licenses for MySQL, allowing companies to pay money to opt out of the copyleft (or share-alike) conditions of the GPL. They were acquired by Sun Microsystems, then by Oracle. Would be good to figure out if this means if wasn't a sustainable business model, or was such a successful model these acquiring companies wanted in (or wanted to avoid paying the fee by owning the product). Since the Oracle acquisition, some of the original MySQL developers started MariaDB, which has replaced it in the LAMP stack for many users.
  • Red Hat (acquired by IBM) - sell service contracts to companies using their Red Hat Linux distribution on desktops or servers. Develops and sells service constants for other "enterprise" software, for large companies that demand and can pay for stability, secrecy, and user-friendly interface to reduce staff time spent getting work done.


Does this count as a business?

Some social enterprises are developing code using the traditional "foundation" model, where a global, not-for-profit entity stewards the development of the code, and works with partners to provide it to users on a commercial basis. Does this count as a business, or is it more like a charity (even though it's self-funding), or a consortium (like the Linux Foundation, Apache Foundation, Document Foundation, or MariaDB Foundation)?

  • Open Food Network - they steward the development of software for running local food distribution hubs, similar to Bucky Box, and run hosted versions for local partners in various parts of the world. Revenue is derived from charging a small service fee to the food businesses involved in each food hub using the software, again, similar to BB.


More articles about funding free code software development


On breaking the free code commons out of fear of corporate hijack or evil usage

Richard Stallman: Why programs must not limit the freedom to run them

Bruce Perens: Invasion of The Ethical Licenses

  • Business Source License - limits commercial use of more than X proportion of the code for Y years, after which all code becomes GPL. Perhaps the least horrific of these licenses, as its basically proprietary relicensing written into a license
A possible replacement for the non-free licenses focused on defending their economic sustainability: the Community Compact

"I believe the result is a sustainable business model, not in conflict with its community, but in harmony with it. One that allows us to open source all of the software we produce, create large businesses around them, but which binds us together with rules of behavior we all agree to up front.

It produces software that complies with the Open Source Definition and the Free Software Foundations Four Freedoms."


  • Not sure the breaking the free code commons list belongs on this page. It is related to researching business models around the software commons and how people are thinking about them though.
  • Would be good to replace Wired links to more grassroots perspectives. The "GitHub helping ..." headline is particularly galling.