Flows of energy

by Marijn Haverbeke (license)

More Money For Better Open-Source Software

Monday, June 22, 2015 open source community

As a programmer I create artifacts that, unlike classical commodities such as loaves of bread or toothbrushes, can be copied at zero cost.

Fitting copyable things into the capitalist market economy is something of an unsolved problem. The standard model of commerce is to sell our products by the unit. But here, everyone who gets their hands on a single unit can create an infinite number of units, ruining our market.

Thus, we've invented copyright, using the law to try and make the copyable less copyable, and allowing us to go back to the classical model of selling by the unit. Copyright is rather effective at protecting the interests of the producer of the copyable goods—it doesn't fully prevent copying, but it inhibits it enough to allow many authors, musicians, and software houses to turn a profit.

Open source software (and similarly open-licensed works in other media) tilts the balance the other way—it leaves the consumer's ability to copy the works largely unconstrained. This is a way to optimize the usage of the work, the value humanity as a whole gets from it. At the cost, of course, of the ability of the producer to capture value.

Growing Up

I am very happy that the open source concept took off. I personally benefit hugely from being able to use many pieces of great software, without the bother or the financial burden of having to purchase them. I am even more happy that people who aren't as privileged as I am also have access to all this software.

I have spent over 8 years working mostly on open source software. Sometimes I was paid, often I was not. This was possible for me because I have been financially secure my whole life, and giving away software that may or may not help my career at some point in the future was never a seriously risky choice. By the time I started taking on financial responsibilities, my open source career had been bootstrapped well enough that it wasn't risky anymore.

You could say that lack of financial and social responsibilities is the entry ticket to the open source world. And that shows—we're mostly a young white guy club. The open source endeavor is, in a way, missing out on lots of programming talent, both that of people who never are in a position to enter our world to begin with, and that of people who grow up, get a mortgage, and move on to a safe commercial job.

(There are certainly other causes for the lack of diversity in open source, but I think this one is a significant factor.)

Finding a Middle Ground

What I want, both for long-time maintainers like myself and for people starting out, is a way to get more money flowing into open source. There have been several stories in the news about underfunded, critical projects, but I think the problem affects most projects that aren't directly associated with a company: There are few direct incentives to pay for open source, so even projects with enormous amounts of users often simply don't see enough money to pay for proper maintenance. The slack is sometimes picked up by the aforementioned young people without responsibilities, but that is rarely sustainable.

The effect is that the resulting software isn't as good as it could be and that some niches that would benefit greatly from having a good open implementation simply do not get addressed. In terms of costs and benefits, this is entirely stupid. The money it takes to properly pay a few maintainers is, for most types of software, very small compared to the value created by having that software globally available.

In terms of game theory, on the other hand, this is a rather obvious outcome—one actor's contribution to a project's maintenance is likely to cost that actor more than the direct benefit they receive from the slightly improved maintenance level. Everybody likes good roads, but nobody likes to pay taxes. So everybody sits on their asses and waits for someone else to do something.

But roads can not be copied, whereas software can, so the maintenance work needed to supply people with software does not increase as much per person as the way it does with roads. For projects that have the potential to cater to a lot of users, the economy of scale is very much in our favor. I think we can work this out.

I am about to launch a new project, which is likely to seriously increase the amount of maintenance work I have to do for non-paying strangers. I've been thinking a lot about the way to approach this in the past months. These are the options I've considered...

Option 1: Closed Source

I could keep all rights to my software and go back to the warm embrace of classical commodity capitalism.

But that'd reduce the impact of my software to a tiny circle of paying customers. I'd have to do marketing to get new customers, rather than the thing simply spreading on its own merit, and lots of people to whom the software would be helpful won't use it because they can't afford it or simply don't know about it. Very unsatisfying.

Option 2: Difficult Open Source

In this model, I would license the code under the Affero GPL license, which is much like the GPL, but without the loophole that allows you to use such code on a networked server without distributing your code to the users of that server.

This would mostly mean that commercial use of the code would be a lot harder, since the companies using my code would have to open-source much of their own code. The trick would then be to sell licenses to such companies that allowed them to use the code on other terms.

I've seriously considered this approach, but there are two concerns that made me abandon it. Firstly, I expect it would inhibit use of the library almost as much as the closed source model, because GPL licenses are complicated and scary and their legal implications are not terribly well understood.

But more problematically, this model requires me (or my company) to play the role of a central actor. I can only sell licenses if I actually own the copyright over the whole project. That means that only people who explicitly sign away their copyright to me would be able to contribute. And it means that anybody using the code commercially would be entirely dependent on me—if I vanish or quadruple my prices, they have a problem. I personally would be unlikely to use such a project, or to contribute to it.

So that's out as well.

Option 3: The Cultural Approach

This is a long shot, but it is what I'm going to try. I am legally licensing the code under an MIT license, which is very liberal. Contributors keep the copyright over their contributions on the condition that they license them under the same license, so that the project is a free thing that can be continued and forked without my involvement.

But along with this legal licensing situation, I am going to emphasize, in the docs, the license file, and the communication surrounding the project, that free-loading is not socially acceptable. Along with this, I will provide convenient mechanisms to donate. The code of financial conduct would be something like this:

The monthly part is the important thing here. Having to periodically beg a user base to please contribute to a donation drive again is a drag, and not very effective. Convincing users to donate as long as they get value from the software gives a maintainer a more or less predictable, low-maintenance source of compensations for their work.

Along with this, I will run a crowd-funding drive to launch the project. This is a way to try and get paid for the huge amount of work that went into the initial implementation (as opposed to future maintenance). It worked well with my Tern project.


In the past year or so, a lot has been written about the problem I am trying to address here. With luck, the IT community will start to become more aware of the issue. Ideally, I'd like to move towards a culture where setting up contributions to open source maintainers whose work your company depends on becomes the norm. Individual projects setting such expectations can help move us in that direction.

I also hope that services making it easier to transfer money from open source users to open source maintainers, like Bountysource and Patreon, become more widely used. There is definitely room for more experimentation in this space. For example, software and conventions to help channel contributions made to a project to individual contributors who are doing the work, in a fair way.

But these things, if they work at all, only work for proven projects with many users. To lower the financial bar for people interested in starting open source work, we need something different. One possibility would be well-funded projects channeling some of their money towards mentorship and compensation of junior contributors.

Another avenue would be to build organizations that act as incubators for open source projects, helping people with a basic income and a helpful environment as they work on open source. New projects are hit-and-miss, of course, and motivating companies to fund these things is likely to be difficult. But the money needed to provide basic financial security for a starting programmer is trivial compared to the value created by having good software freely available. You could see such organizations as doing public infrastructure work, and if sold in the right way they just might be sustainable.

(For another recent piece on the same topic, see Noah Kantrowitz's Funding FOSS.)