Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Funding Free Software

My last post raised the issue of funding Free Software, which I regard as an essential way of improving both the user and developer experiences around the use and creation of Free Software. In short, asking people to just volunteer more of their spare time, in order to satisfy the erroneous assumption that Free Software must be free of charge, is neither sustainable nor likely to grow the community around Free Software to which both users and developers belong.

In response, Eric Jones raised some pertinent themes: attitudes to paying for things; judgements about the perceived monetary value of those things; fund-raising skills and what might be called business or economic awareness; the potentially differing predicaments of infrastructure projects and user-facing projects. I gave a quick response in a comment of my own, but I also think that a more serious discussion could be had to try and find real solutions to the problem of sustainable funding for Free Software. I do not think that a long message to the FSFE discussion mailing list is the correct initial step, however, and so this article is meant to sketch out a few thoughts and suggestions as a prelude to a proper discussion.

On Paying for Things

It seems to me that people who can afford it do not generally have problems finding ways to spend their money. For instance, how many people spend tens of euros, dollars, pounds per month on mobile phone subscriptions with possibly-generous data allowances that they do not use? What about insurance, electricity, broadband Internet access, television/cable/streaming services, banking services? How often do we hear various self-appointed “consumer champions” berate people for overspending on such things? That people could shop around and save money. It is almost as if this is the primary purpose of the “developed world” human: to continually monitor the “competitive landscape” as each of its inhabitants adjusts its pricing and terms, nudging their captive revenues upward until such antics are spotted and punished with a rapid customer relationship change.

I may have noted before that many industries have moved to subscription models, presumably having noticed that once people have been parked in a customer relationship with a stable and not-particularly-onerous outgoing payment once a month, they will most likely stay in that relationship unless something severe enough occurs to overcome the effort of switching. Now, I do not advocate taking advantage of people in this way, but disregarding the matter of customer inertia and considering subscription models specifically, it is to be noted that these are used by various companies in the enterprise sector and have even been tried with individual “consumers”. For example, Linspire offered a subscription-based GNU/Linux distribution, and Eazel planned to offer subscription based access to online services providing, amongst other things, access to Free Software repositories.

(The subscription model can also be dubious in situations where things should probably be paid for according to actual usage, rather than some formula being cooked up to preserve a company’s balance sheet. For instance, is it right that electricity should be sold at a fixed per-month subscription cost? Would that product help uphold a company’s obligations to source renewable energy or would it give them some kind of implied permission to buy capacity generated from fossil fuels that has been dumped on the market? This kind of thing is happening now: it is not a mere thought exercise.)

Neither Linspire nor Eazel survived to the present day, the former being unable to resist the temptation to mix proprietary software into its offerings, thus alienating potential customers who might have considered a polished Debian-based distribution product three years before Ubuntu entered the scene. Eazel, meanwhile, burned through its own funding and closed up shop even before Linspire appeared, leaving the Nautilus file manager as its primary legacy. Both companies funded Free Software development, with Linspire funding independent projects, but obviously both companies decided internally how to direct funds to deserving projects, not really so unlike how businesses might normally fund Free Software.

On Infrastructure and User-Facing Software

Would individuals respond well to a one-off payment model for Free Software? The “app” model, with accompanying “store”, has clearly been considered as an option by certain companies and communities. Some have sought to provide such a store stocked with Free Software and, in the case of certain commercial services, proprietary applications. Others seek to provide their own particular software in existing stores. One hindrance to the adoption of such stores in the traditional Free Software realm is the availability of mature distribution channels for making software available, and such channels are typically freely accessible unless an enterprise software distribution is involved.

Since there seems to be an ongoing chorus of complaint about how “old” distribution software generally is, one might think that an opportunity might exist for more up-to-date applications to be delivered through some kind of store. Effort has gone into developing mechanisms for doing this separately from distributions’ own mechanisms, partly to prevent messing up the stable base system, partly to deliver newer versions of software that can be supported by the base system.

One thing that would bother me about such initiatives, even assuming that the source code for each “product” was easily obtained and rebuilt to run in the container-like environment inevitably involved, would be the longevity of the purchased items. Will the software keep working even after my base system has been upgraded? How much effort would I need to put in myself? Is this something else I have to keep track of?

For creators of Free Software, one concern would be whether it would even be attractive for people to obtain their software via such a store. As Eric notes, applications like The GIMP resemble the kind of discrete applications that people routinely pay money for, if marketed at them by proprietary software companies. But what about getting a more recent version of a mail server or a database system? Some might claim that such infrastructure things are the realm of the enterprise and that only companies would pay for this, and if individuals were interested, it would only be a small proportion of the wider GIMP-using audience.

(One might argue that the never-ending fixation on discrete applications always was a factor undermining the vision of component-based personal computing systems. Why deliver a reliable component that is reused by everyone else when you could bundle it up inside an “experience” and put your own brand name on it, just as everyone else will do if you make a component instead? The “app” marketplace now is merely this phenomenon taken to a more narcissistic extreme.)

On Sharing the Revenue

This brings us to how any collected funds would be shared out. Corporate donations are typically shared out according to corporate priorities, and communities probably do not get much of a say in the matter. In a per-unit store model, is it fair to channel all revenue from “sales” of The GIMP to that project or should some of that money be reserved for related projects, maybe those on which the application is built or maybe those that are not involved but which could offer complementary solutions? Should the project be expected to distribute the money to other projects if the storefront isn’t doing so itself? What kind of governance should be expected in order to avoid squabbles about people taking an unfair share of the money?

Existing funding platforms like Gratipay, which solicit ongoing contributions or donations as the means of funding, avoid such issues entirely by defining project-level entities which receive the money, and it is their responsibility to distribute it further. Maybe this works if the money is not meant to go any further than a small group of people with a well-defined entitlement to the incoming revenues, but with relationships between established operating system distributions and upstream projects sometimes becoming difficult, with distributions sometimes demanding an easier product to work with, and with upstream projects sometimes demanding that they not be asked to support those distributions’ users, the addition of money risks aggravating such tensions further despite having the potential to reduce or eliminate them if the sharing is done right.

On Worthy Projects

This is something about which I should know just a little. My own Free Software endeavours do not really seem to attract many users. It is not that they have attracted no other users besides myself – I have had communications over the years with some reasonably satisfied users – but my projects have not exactly been seen as meeting some urgent and widespread need.

(Having developed a common API for Python Web applications, and having delivered software to provide it, deliberately basing it on existing technologies, it was particularly galling to see that particular software labelled by some commentators as contributing to the technology proliferation problem it was meant to alleviate, but that is another story.)

What makes a worthy project? Does it have to have a huge audience or does it just need to do something useful? Who gets to define “useful”? And in a situation where someone might claim that someone else’s “important” project is a mere vanity exercise – doing something that others have already done, perhaps, or solving a need that “nobody really has” – who are we to believe if the developer seeks funding to further their work? Can people expect to see money for working on what they feel is important, or should others be telling them what they should be doing in exchange for support?

It is great that people are able to deliver Free Software as part of a business because their customers can see how that software addresses their needs. But what about the cases where potential customers are not able to see how some software might be useful, even essential, to them? Is it not part of the definition of marketing to help people realise that they need a product or solution? And in a world where people appear unaware of the risks accompanying proprietary software and services, might it not be part of our portfolio of activities to not only develop solutions before the intended audience has realised their importance, but also to try and communicate their importance to that audience?

Even essential projects have been neglected by those who use them to perform essential functions in their lives or in their businesses. It took a testimonial by Edward Snowden to get people to think how little funding GNU Privacy Guard was getting.

On Sources of Funding

Some might claim that there are already plenty of sources of funding for Free Software. Some companies sponsor or make awards to projects or developers – this even happened to me last year after someone graciously suggested my work on imip-agent as being worthy of such an award – and there are ongoing programmes to encourage Free Software participation. Meanwhile, organisations exist within the Free Software realm that receive income and spend some of that income on improving Free Software offerings and to cover the costs of providing those works to the broader public.

The Python Software Foundation is an interesting example. It solicits sponsorship from organisations and individuals whilst also receiving substantial revenue from the North American Python conference series, PyCon. It would be irresponsible to just sit on all of this money, of course, and so some of it is awarded as grants or donations towards community activities. This is where it gets somewhat more interesting from the perspective of funding software, as opposed to funding activities around the software. Looking at the PSF board resolutions, one can get an idea of what the money is spent on, and having considered this previously, I made a script that tries to identify each of the different areas of spending. This is somewhat tricky due to the free-format nature of the source data, but the numbers are something like the following for 2016 resolutions:

Category Total (USD) Percentage
Events 288051 89%
Other software development 19398 6%
Conference software development 10440 3%
Outreach 6400 2%
(All items) 324289 100%

Clearly, PyCon North America relies heavily on the conference management software that has been developed for it over the years – arguably, everyone and their dog wants to write their own conference software instead of improving existing offerings – but let us consider that expenditure a necessity for the PSF and PyCon. That leaves grants for other software development activities accounting for only 6% of the money made available for community-related activities, and one of those four grants was for translation of existing content, not software, into another language.

Now, the PSF’s mission statement arguably emphasises promotion over other matters, with “Python-related open source projects” and “Python-related research” appearing at the end of the list of objectives. Not having been involved in the grant approval process during my time as a PSF member, I cannot say what the obstacles are to getting access to funds to develop Python-related Free Software, but it seems to me that organisations like this particular one are not likely to be playing central roles in broader and more sustainable funding for Free Software projects.

On Bounties and Donations

Outside the normal boundaries of employment, there are a few other ways that have been suggested for getting paid to write Free Software. Donations are what fund organisations like the PSF, ostensibly representing one or more projects, but some individual developers solicit donations themselves, as do smaller projects that have not reached the stage of needing a foundation or other formal entity. More often than not, however, people are just doing this to “keep the lights on”, or rather, keep the hosting costs down for their Web site that has to serve up their software to everyone. Generally, such “tip jar” funding doesn’t really allow anyone to spend very much, if any, paid time on their projects.

At one point in time it seemed that bounties would provide a mechanism whereby users could help improve software projects by offering money if certain tasks were performed, features implemented, shortcomings remedied, and so on. Groups of users could pool their donations to make certain tasks more attractive for developers to work on, thus using good old-fashioned market forces to set rewards according to demand and to give developers an incentive to participate. At least in theory.

There are quite a few problems with bounty marketplaces. First of all, the pooled rewards for a task may not be at all realistic for the work requested. This is often the case on less popular marketplaces, and it used to be the case on virtually every marketplace, although one might say that more money is making it into the more well-known marketplaces now. Nevertheless, one ends up seeing bounties like this one for a new garbage collector for LuaJIT currently offering no reward at all, bearing the following comment from one discussion participant: “This really important for our production workload.” If that comment, particularly being made in such a venue, was made without any money accompanying it, then I don’t think we would need to look much further for a summarising expression of the industry-wide attitude problem around Free Software funding.

Meanwhile, where the cash is piling up, it doesn’t mean that anyone can actually take the bounty off the table. This bounty for a specific architecture port of LuaJIT attracted $5000 from IBM but still isn’t awarded, despite several people supposedly taking it on. And that brings up the next problem: who gets the reward? Unless there is some kind of coordination, and especially if a bounty is growing into something that might be a few months salary for someone, people will compete instead of collaborate to try and get their hands on the whole pot. But if a task is large and complicated, and particularly if the participants are speculating and not necessarily sufficiently knowledgeable or experienced in the technologies to complete it, such competition will just leave a trail of abandonment and very little to show for all the effort that has been made.

Admittedly, some projects appear to be making good use of such marketplaces. For example, the organisation behind elementary OS seems to have some traffic in terms of awarded bounties, although it might be said that they appear to involve smaller tasks and not some of the larger requests that appear to linger for years, never getting resolved. Of course, things can change on the outside without bounties ever getting reviewed for their continued relevance. How many Thunderbird bounties are still relevant now? Seven years is a long time even for Thunderbird.

Given a particular project with plenty of spare money coming in from somewhere, I suppose that someone who happens to be “in the zone” to do the work on that project could manage to queue up enough bounty claims to make some kind of living. But if that “somewhere” is a steady and sizeable source of revenue, and given the “gig economy” nature of the working relationship, one has to wonder whether anyone managing to get by in this way isn’t actually being short-changed by the people making the real money. And that leads us to the uncomfortable feeling that such marketplaces, while appearing to reward developers, are just a tool to drive costs down by promoting informal working arrangements and pitting people against each other for work that only needs to be paid for once, no matter how many times it was actually done in parallel.

Of course, bounties don’t really address the issue of where funds come from, although bounty marketplaces might offer ways of soliciting donations and encouraging sponsorship from companies. But one might argue that all they add is a degree of flexibility to the process of passing on donations that does not necessarily serve the interests of the participating developers. Maybe this is why the bounty marketplace featured in the above links, Bountysource, has shifted focus somewhat to compete with the likes of Gratipay and Patreon, seeking to emphasise ongoing funding instead of one-off rewards.

On Crowd-Funding

One significant development in funding mechanisms over the last few years has been the emergence of crowd-funding. Most people familiar with this would probably summarise it as someone promising something in the form of a campaign, asking for money to do that thing, getting the money if some agreed criteria were met, and then hopefully delivering that promised thing. As some people have unfortunately discovered, the last part can sometimes be a problem, resulting in continuing reputational damage for various crowd-funding platforms.

Such platforms have traditionally been popular for things like creative works, arts, crafts, literature, and so on. But hardware has become a popular funding area as people try their hand at designing devices, sourcing materials, going and getting the devices made, delivering the goods, and dealing with all the logistical challenges these things entail. Probably relatively few of these kinds of crowd-funding campaigns go completely according to plan; things like warranties and support may take a back seat (or not even be in the vehicle at all). The cynical might claim that crowd-funding is a way of people shirking their responsibilities as a manufacturer and doing things on the cheap.

But as far as software is concerned, crowd-funding might avoid the more common pitfalls experienced in other domains. Software developers would merely need to deliver software, not master other areas of expertise on a steep learning curve (sourcing, manufacturing, logistics), and they would benefit from being able to deliver the crucial element of the campaign using the same medium as that involved in getting everyone signed up in the first place: the Internet. So there wouldn’t be the same kind of customs and shipment issues that appear to plague just about every other kind of campaign.

I admit that I do not maintain a sufficient overview when it comes to software-related crowd-funding or, indeed, crowd-funding in general. The two major software campaigns I am aware of are Mailpile and Roundcube Next. Although development has been done on Roundcube Next, and Mailpile is certainly under active development, neither managed to deliver a product within the anticipated schedule. Software development costs are notoriously difficult to estimate, and it is very possible that neither project asked for enough money to pursue their goals with enough resources for timely completion.

One might say that it is no good complaining about things not getting done quickly enough and that people should pitch in and help out. On the one hand, I agree that since such products are Free Software and are available even in their unfinished state, we should take advantage of this to produce a result that satisfies everybody. On the other hand, we cannot keep returning to the “everybody pitch in” approach all the time, particularly when the circumstances provoking such a refrain have come about when people have purposefully tried to cultivate a different, more sustainable way of developing Free Software.

On Reflection

So there it is, a short article that went long again! Hopefully, it provides some useful thoughts about the limitations of existing funding approaches and some clues that might lead to better funding approaches in future.

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