If you are a web designer or developer there is a good chance that you rely for many of your projects on open source applications and scripts.
The creators of these helpful and by now nearly essential applications often work for free and make none or little money, if not even losses.
The question is how we, the persons that profit the most from open source projects, can help, contribute and support the numerous and free applications, scripts and programs and their creators, so that they can further improve, evolve and do as well in the future as good of a job as they do now.
One of the simplest ways to help any product (free or not) is to give feedback, report bugs and errors and suggest things that could be improved in the future.
At the same time keep in mind that the responsible people work on their projects in their free time and without payment; be gentle and polite, provide constructive critique and don’t expect that problems are solved over night (or maybe at all).
If you didn’t pay for the lightbox script you are using, you can’t expect the programmer to make it work in IE6 just because you want it to.
Solutions are nevertheless often found surprisingly quick. Also don’t forget to check documentations, discussion boards and forums related to the application you use for problems similar to yours; there is no point in reporting a bug for the fiftieth time.
Directly related to my first suggestion is the following one: If you find a bug or miss a certain function and you are savvy in the related coding language fix it yourself and share your solution with the original creator.
Fixing bugs and adding functions is hereby just the beginning, you can also generally improve the code (make it smaller, faster, better), create your own styling, built it on another framework (MooTools instead of jQuery) and so on.
I’m sure the authors of the original will be thankful for every improvement you come up with. Eventually the grateful creator will even mention and link to you (who says no to some free traffic).
Because most of the applications and scripts we’re talking about in this article are open source you could theoretically republish them yourself, but how much sense does that really make as long as you don’t make any major changes.
A somewhat different method, but after my opinion the absolute minimum you can and should do is to mention and link to the applications and scripts you used on a web site.
Even a little footnote at the bottom of your page is worth something and an easy way to say “Thank you”.
Like this you’re not only generating some traffic for the authors of the application, but your visitors can also easily find out what techniques you used on your web page.
Especially if you are using a lot of free applications and scripts (as an example free Word press plugins on your blog) you might consider creating a whole “credits” page.
Spread the word
Another similar way is to recommend or report on open source projects (it doesn’t even matter whether or not you actually use them).
You can do this very easily with the help of Twitter or other social networking (Facebook) and bookmarking services(digg) or via mail and instant messengers (directly recommend to your co-workers and colleagues). The best way is naturally to dedicate a post to the product or create a list of open source projects you enjoy on your blog, in case you have one.
The last and maybe most appreciated way to help an open source project is donating.
I know that there are a lot of people that won’t be able to afford donating and no one is going to be mad if you just don’t have the cash to do so (maybe you are a design student or just started your own business, etc.), but if you are a successful professional (or enterprise) and are financially well situated then you should definitely consider this.
I also know that there are already a lot of payments that need to be made, including commercial licenses for applications and software, stock resources or font licenses, but a small donation can already make a big difference.
One thing you could consider is to give a certain percentage of your payment for a project to the platform you built it on. You could as example give $20 to wordpress.org if you used WordPress to built a $2000 web site for a customer; one percent doesn’t seem like too big of a sacrifice.
It is also clear that you can’t give a percentage of your payment to every little plug-in and script you use, but the ones you use on a regular basis or prove to be especially useful you should also support with a small donation (the sky is the limit, but everything from $5 upwards is just fine).
Most open source projects also list donators and their good deeds.
Although the focus of this post was definitely on free and open source applications and scripts, it doesn’t mean that these principles can’t be applied to other free services and goods you enjoy.
No one stops you from supporting your favorite blog, free stock image sites, free fonts or other resources, online tools or applications or open source software.
Most of the above principles can as well be used to support these free goods and their creators; often there are even more possibilities. I’m sure that your favorite web design blog or forum are glad if you participate in discussions and give feedback or submit their posts to different sites (digg, twitter, designbump, etc.).
We receive a lot of the tools and resources that help us to do a better job for free and take them for granted, but we tend to forget that someone actually made the effort and invested his time and energy and that is, after all, not as normal and self-evident as we might think.