NY bill would provide tax credit for open source contributors

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Opensource.com

For many years, the open source software community has made the distinction between "free as in freedom" (the software can be used or modified as the user sees fit) and "free as in beer" (the software is available at no cost). Some have added a third type of free: "free as in puppy". Like a puppy, adopting open source software has ongoing cost.

What many people don't consider is that developing open source software has a cost, too. Many developers purchase extra hardware for testing or pay for code hosting, a website, etc. A pending bill in the New York Senate aims to help offset those costs.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Daniel Squadron (D-26th) and co-sponsored by Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-36th), would provide a tax credit of 20% of "expenses associated with the development of open source and free software", up to an annual maximum of $200. Based on a 2006 report by the Center for American Progress, this bill appears to be the first of its kind introduced to a state legislature.

Promoting innovation is the primary reason for this bill. Senator Squadron recognizes the impact of open source software despite not being a coder himself: "I represent the tech triangle and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, as well as areas in lower Manhattan where the technology sector has a growing presenceā€”supporting that kind of innovation is key. I've also seen the cost-saving impacts open source can have for everyday users and businesses. Incentivizing open source software can attract more open source developers, create in-state jobs, and add to the state's burgeoning technology sector. Personally though, I won't be coding."

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) provided guidance on factual matters related to open source and free software. "The Senator's office wanted to ensure consistency in evaluation by government/state officials, continuity with internationally recognized standards and the software industry, and avoid ambiguity among projects that may call themselves open source but do not comply with the Open Source Definition", OSI General Manager Patrick Masson said. OSI has promoted awareness of this bill and announced its support.

Versions of this bill have been introduced previously, but have not passed. Part of of the challenge is getting a legislative body to understand technology issues. Senator Squadron's office has indicated that public support seems to be growing, and an increasing awareness of the economic impacts of open source technology can be a major driver of bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 161 is currently in the Senate's Investigations and Government Operations Committee. The full text is available online. New York residents who wish to contact their senator can find contact information on the New York State Senate website.

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Ben Cotton is a meteorologist by training, but weather makes a great hobby. Ben works as the Fedora Program Manager at Red Hat. He co-founded a local open source meetup group, and is a member of the Open Source Initiative and a supporter of Software Freedom Conservancy. Find him on Twitter (@FunnelFiasco) or at FunnelFiasco.com.

5 Comments

Good to know about as a New York State resident. I wonder if that includes writing articles for Opensource.com.

This is interesting. It's not much in itself, with the credit capped at $200; but it's a step in the right direction.

It seems to me that a bigger step in the right direction would be to treat open-source contributions like charitable contributions. If you donate time or labor to a charity, you can get a tax deduction for the value of your time or labor; and if the same were true for open-source contributions, then it would be a huge boost to the open-source movement. It would particularly be helpful if corporations could get a tax deduction from their corporate income taxes for supporting open-source projects.

Of course, accounting for and verifying time spent on a project could be a nightmare. And a tax deduction won't be much help to the struggling young programmer who pays little or no income tax to begin with. But recognizing open-source contributions as enhancing the common weal (I dare say the GNU and Linux projects have done as much for the public welfare as most charities I can think of) would be a huge boost to the open-source movement.

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