What is wrong with (economics in) FLOSS?

There is currently an interesting debate on the JavaScript community, centered around the standard/standard project on GitHub. Some people are interested on the economics of free software and trying to explore different avenues for getting back money for contributing to open source.

You can see the full thread here, and I invite you to read my thoughts on the issue (which I have replied in the original thread, and may later see comments on it).

Forefront: if you are currently maintaining a FLOSS project and feel entitled to someone paying you for doing volunteer work, I humbly invite you to revise your thoughts, or otherwise step down and leave the FLOSS community. We’ll do fine without you. Yeah, maybe you can wreak havoc for a couple of versions on some dependencies and create a bit of history of “what shouldn’t happen”, but that will be it. We’ll fork your stuff, fix it and move on.

But then, there are those that, without feeling entitled to it, may think that it would be nice if Free Software projects could have people working full-time on them in order to increase their value over proprietary alternatives. And here, I do sympathise with you, completely.

First of all, I think there’s a problem with the discourse between Free Software and Proprietary Software at a fundamental level if we can even think that only in general proprietary software can be a source of sustenance/income, a thought some folks here are seemingly supportive of.

While I don’t think that Free Software developers are entitled to a sustained income, I don’t disagree on the general point that such contributions can be valuable and should be fairily rewarded, and encouraged to continue participating with more valuable contributions, and thus, achieve such an income.

In particular, if we want to create more high-quality free software to, essentially, compete against proprietary software for the freedoms and guarantees it gives us, then, somehow, in an abstract way, the Free Software Movement is competing for labor against for-profit corporations. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all free software should be monetized, and of course it does not say anything about how and from who should that money come from. I do agree with @traverseda’s point on value exchange: it’s tricky, and even more when we talk about something as intrincate as software, usually built from thousands of dependent pieces whose contribution to the whole is never easily calculated.

The whole idea of Free Software and Open Source is an exercise on models about shared capital, and shared property (intellectual property, which is itself an amusing construct that we came up with to try to monetize off the press machine, since the cost of book-copying became obsolete at that point). This shared property, “the Commons”, is also infinitely redistributable at marginal costs, it’s not like a “community fund” where if take money for community expenses, it leaves the fund. Here, it stays for the rest of the community to also use it again in as many ways as imaginable.

The thing is that, while all the intellectual works of a project are infinitely redistributable, the time of developers/maintainers committing their time to this “community fund” is definitely not. But then, what we are asking is how can we fairily set a value for the work that the “intellectual workers” did, and who should pay that value? In my opinion, the answer to this question has never been properly formulated throughout History.

We have many mechanisms, like grants, patronage, royalties, patents…, but (again, in my opinion) all of them have some or other nuances that make them unfit in different circumstances.

Cross-linking from https://github.com/feross/funding/issues/11#issuecomment-524609870, you can find most of these approaches applied to software on the lemonade stand repo.

Personally, I’m fond of crowd-sourced bounties and encouraging users to pay consultants to develop the features they’d need (as they would pay on proprietary software). It has some frictions, and it’s not an easy encouragement (that’s why I’m mentioning it as part of what’s wrong right now), and the conflict may arise as to whether some candidate implementation actually fulfills what’s being asked, but by pooling money together on an issue you can get the attention of someone who may see value in implementing it.

  • It gives users a loud voice on what’s important to them by voting with the same thing that gives them value
  • It still gives a voice to those who can commit less money, because if the thing is relevant, it will be bountied further by others who may see the feature interesting too
  • It is more transparent about who the money goes to, and what for
  • It gives users an incentive to become contributors, and increase the long-term strength of the project, also giving the ability to core developers to step back if they wish to, without feeling they are irreplaceable

However, - This has the risk of money taking control of the planning and long-term development of the project; but there the core developers may also decide if money provides more value to them than actually setting a long-term plan pro bono. - Having pledges linked to the “upstream” project prevents them from being vetted by the backers until upstream maintainers can review the task, reducing the value capture of forking the project and implementing missing features (e.g., on an unmaintained repo with a maintained fork)

There is also the problem of reviewing/merging and how that value should be split, but before considering that, we should also put in the other hand if, instead of reviewing the changes the project was split into a fork, the loss of value created by the fragmentation of the ecosystem, which should not be dismissed either.

Having bounties for performing work (or recurring patronage) gives back to the contributors the labor-value of their contributions (at least, it does if the contributors accept bounties according to the effort it requires for them), independently of the actual use-value of the project.

However, the neoclassical-economy-aligned who read this that reject a labor theory of value may not find the former argumentation satisfactory, although I think they could find some alternate argumentation under their framework.

These arguments probably work only for truly community efforts; I haven’t yet matured the thoughts enough to understand the implications on cooperating for-profit companies on open-source projects, although their current model doesn’t seem too problematic for them.

On a side note, if you are a current maintainer of a project, and you think you don’t have the time (or money to avoid the need to rent your time) to continue contributing to a project, maybe you can also just step back, and advertise a contributors wanted notice, so that others understand the situation and pitch in. In the end, collaborating should be a gratifying business, and if it is not for you, maybe you can leave it to others who find it so and come back later.

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