Crowdfunding, Micro-Patronage, And The Future Of Free Software

The “free” in Free Software refers to “freedom”, rather than cost. It is largely a happy coincidence that Free Software is available gratis. Copyleft licensing certainly helps, but there’s no overarching reason that Free-as-in-Freedom software need not cost anything. As Free Software has evolved and matured over the years, several major developmental archetypes have emerged. There’s the hobbyist software, worked on here and there as free time permits by one or more developers. There’s the “this isn’t a competitive advantage” software written primarily by a single corporate entity and released to the public for any of a variety of reasons. There’s also foundation-backed software, like that produced by the Apache Software Foundation or the Document Foundation, that is financed by multiple independent contributors and stewarded by a representative body. And then there’s stuff like the Linux kernel itself, where a non-trivial number of people are paid by their employers to work on it full-time.

I’d wager that the bulk of Free Software is of the first sort: hobbyists looking to scratch an itch. Some of these hobbyists may be independently wealthy, and therefore able to work full-time on their projects; but most contributors to free software do so on the side, in between their other obligations. And let’s not forget all the people dabbling with code for their own personal edification, rather than trying to productize something.

It’s for this reason, I think, that Free Software often gets a bad rap in the court of public opinion. For every shining success like the Apache httpd or the LibreOffice suite or the Linux kernel, there are thousands of barely-adequate programs languishing at SourceForge and GitHub. Maybe they work well enough for their developers, who understand the various quirks and deficiencies, but they’re far from ready for prime time for “regular” users.

Historically, Free Software developers didn’t have much in the way of funding options if they wanted to move beyond the hobbyist phase. Developers could solicit sponsorship from business entities, but just like venture capital that might open a Pandora’s box of expectations and obligations different from what the developers originally planned. Or developers could put up a PayPal tip jar and hope to offset some of their hosting and development costs. Most such tip jars remained depressingly empty.

In medieval times, artisans would seek wealthy patrons to support them in the pursuit of their work without all the bother of a day job. These patrons had varying motives for sponsoring artisans, but generally enjoyed the prestige associated with doing so. In the end, most everyone benefited from the arrangement: the artisans avoided starvation and got to produce their works; the reputations of the patrons grew, and the general public got to (eventually) enjoy the works produced.

The rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indigogo has brought forth a new kind of patronage for our modern era. No longer does one wealthy benefactor have to subsidize the life and work of artisans. Instead the funds — and associated risk — are distributed amongst multiple participants. The model has been working well for board games and movies and electronic doo-dads. It’ll work for Free Software, too.

Yorba, the company behind the Linux photo management application Shotwell, are dipping their toes into the crowdfunding pool to finance their next project. They’ve started an Indigogo project to collect funding to develop Geary, a “lightweight email program designed around conversations.”

Although some folks are perfectly content with web-based email, there are many who prefer a native desktop client. In this regard, Linux desktops have been sub-par. Mozilla’s Thunderbird seems adequate, but the folks at Yorba seem to think they can do a lot better. To make their dream a reality, they’re asking the global community of Linux users to collectively put up $100,000 USD. I asked Jim Nelson, Yorba’s executive director, how that money would spent.

“We plan on feeding and clothing three engineers with the money raised,” Nelson told me by email. “The money we raise will be used almost entirely for salary and our tax obligations.”

I was curious if Yorba had any concerns about some kind of “hostile takeover”, as might occur if all the financial backers of Geary started to try to influence development. Sure, it’s open source software and anyone can fork the code; but the relationship between “donor” and “sponsor” is nuanced. If a sponsor doesn’t like the work-in-progress, they ostensibly have a chance to make their feelings known before the work is complete.

Nelson isn’t too worried. “Any one patron, no matter how well-financed they are, are up against potentially hundreds of patrons whose sum contribution represents a large stake to contend with.” More importantly, Nelson observes that “crowdfunding is not a contract model — a single large donation is still a donation, and if the well-funded donor asked for something contrary to our long-term goals, we still have the freedom to say ‘no’ and stick with the goals we’ve laid out in our campaign.”

It’s not that I don’t worry about this. Any time money changes hands there are attendant risks involved. But crowdfunding represents a model of trust that gives us independence. We’re relying on our track record of past performance for people to see that we’re a good horse to bet on. The crowdfunding model strikes me as a far better situation than the alternative of seeking out corporate sponsorship, where we would have to place their priorities first, no matter our own personal vision or end-user commitments.

Geary isn’t the first Free Software project to try to use crowdfunding, and it certainly won’t be the last. I wish them success in their efforts, and I look forward to more Free Software developers being able to produce more and better Free Software solutions supported by the micro-patronage of crowdfunding.