Dustin Ingram

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The inevitable idea #

In the wake of recent layoffs at NPM, I noticed some folks talking about the two extremes that are NPM and PyPI. To compare:

NPM:

PyPI:

A question that gets inevitably raised when discussing PyPI’s “business model” is: why not turn it into something that makes money? We could offer private repositories, we could offer support for on-site mirrors, we could add custom badges for our PRO users, we could auction off the best package names to the highest bidder… the possibilities are endless.

I’ll admit: it’s a tantalizing thought, especially considering how much I love working on PyPI, how bare-bones of an operation we truly run, and how often I get asked this question.

However, turning PyPI into a service that makes money has a number of challenges beyond “how much do we start charging” and “where do we put all the money” that aren’t often considered.

To be clear, these are not challenges that NPM has faced, or would be inherent to a VC-backed service like NPM. They have their own set of challenges, and although I don’t presume to know exactly what they are, I think it’s probably not impossible for them to succeed.

These are the challenges of turning a more or less functional long-running service that’s free to use into something that generates income.

Our non-profit status #

PyPI is a project by The Python Software Foundation, and the PSF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Its mission is “to promote, protect, and advance the Python programming language”, not necessarily to provide paid services relating to it.

From “How to lose your 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status (without really trying):

Earning too much income generated from unrelated activities can jeopardize an organization’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. This income comes from a regularly carried on trade or business that is not substantially related to the organization’s exempt purpose.

Generally, being a non-profit, and trying to run a business in the domain of other for-profit enterprises might call into question our tax-exempt status, which is very important for the PSF to maintain in order to continue existing as we’ve grown accustomed.

Obviously, that could always be changed, but it might not worth it. Nick Coghlan writes:

Taking the PSF down the same road as Mozilla (where the taxable Mozilla Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation) would be possible, but also a non-trivial distraction for the PSF staff and Board. And even that option isn’t foolproof, as the Mozilla Foundation found out.

TL;DR: the Mozilla Foundation received a four-year long audit, after which they were required to settle with the IRS for $1.5MM.

Donated services #

PyPI relies heavily on donated services and infrastructure, to the tune of more than $1MM per year. If we start trying to make money, what would our sponsors think about that? Hynek Schlawack writes:

The (very high) costs of running are mostly covered by sponsors like Fastly that would probably have little interest in funding a new business.

My guess is, yeah, they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. They’d likely pull their sponsorships and in-kind donations. It’d be pretty hard to say when exactly they would decide to do that, but it’d probably be sooner than later.

What if they all pull out on day one? It would sure be hard to make PyPI go from making $0 a year in revenue to more than $1MM per year, all without incurring significant debts or outages.

The current ecosystem #

In addition to PyPI, there is already a plethora of alternative Python package repositories. They range from very DIY (devpi, bandersnatch) to fully hosted paid services (Artifactory, Gemfury, etc), each with various features, use cases, and purposes.

However, this is not to say that the existence of these options means that a “PyPI as a Service” would not be successful–in fact, given the frequency of which I hear this request, I’m quite sure any new entrant into this “market” would be.

What’s important to consider is that each of these services depend to some degree on the ecosystem that PyPI provides: either they literally depend on PyPI (in the case of mirrors, they need our APIs and file hosting to do their job) or they depend on the packaging standards we drive (in the case of the private repos, to maintain compatibility with the current installers, packaging formats, etc).

If PyPI gets into the business of hosting private packages, it could de-incentivize us from helping to make sure “competing” services remain functional. Why bother fixing an annoying issue that breaks old versions of bandersnatch, when we could prioritize feature work that would bring in more income?

Our volunteers #

With the exception of the PSF Director of Infrastructure (who doesn’t spend a whole lot of time working on PyPI) and the contractors we’ve hired to fulfill the grants we’ve recently gotten (who only work on PyPI within the bounds of their respective contracts), PyPI is supported entirely by unpaid volunteers.

This raises kind of an ethical issue: Is it fair to ask volunteers to continue contributing their time to a for-profit enterprise? Probably not.

It’s one thing to have people work for free when you’re not making any money anyways, but if you’re making income, those people are called your employees and they probably want a living salary. Donald Stufft writes:

People cost a lot of money, and there is infrastructure around hiring people that we’d need to take into account.

Similar to the sponsors, it’d be hard to predict how this would go. Would we need to replace all our volunteers with hired staff immediately?

The transition #

All this is not to discourage anyone who has this idea. In fact, the annual PyCon conference is quite similar to what often gets proposed here:

In addition, PyCon has addressed (or is addressing) many of these challenges, but it remains that the transition would be very challenging.

PyPI as it exists today is an established service and a core piece of infrastructure. In order to transition from our current model to a “PyPI as a Service”, we’d need to solve all the problems above, plus keep PyPI up and running while we do it.

Would it be completely impossible? No. But would it actually be worth all the time, energy, and lawyers? In the long run, probably not.

Thanks to Nick Coghlan, Ewa Jodlowska, and Donald Stufft for educating me on this topic (and many others).