Open source code is integral to tech stacks at many large companies, but its authors rarely get recognized — let alone compensated — for their work.
Max Howell claims the package manager software he created, Homebrew, is the most contributed-to open source software program in the world. Still, companies including Square and Google that have leveraged Homebrew haven’t acknowledged Howell’s contributions to their product in any meaningful way, he told TechCrunch — though he noted they did send him some branded swag items, including a blanket.
Howell infamously tweeted about being rejected for a job at Google because he couldn’t answer a niche technical question by hand despite the fact that “90% of [Google’s] engineers” use the software he wrote. Since that 2015 tweet, compensation for open source developers has remained a hot-button issue, and popular developer platform GitHub launched a feature in 2019 that allows users to send tips to their favorite open source coders.
Howell sees the rise of new projects in the web3 space as an opportunity to reshape how these open source developers are compensated for their work. To that end, he just announced the launch of a new venture called Tea that he co-founded alongside three fellow engineers, which he says will help reward open source programmers for their contributions to web3 projects. In a nod to Homebrew, Tea referred to itself as “brew2 for web3” in its announcement.
In conjunction with its launch, the Puerto Rico-based startup also announced that it has raised $8 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs, the venture capital arm of the largest crypto exchange by transaction volume. Other investors in Tea’s round include XBTO Humla Ventures, Lattice Capital, Darma Capital, Coral DeFi, Woodstock, Rocktree, SVK Crypto and MAKE Group, according to the company.
Howell explained that volunteer open source programmers who create software that ends up being widely used often face pressure to iterate and troubleshoot the code they created without compensation for doing so. He cited the example of a cybersecurity vulnerability found in the popular Log4J open source tool, which, when discovered, prompted users to direct “quite a lot of hatred and anger” to the original developers.
“They fixed the bug, but they pointed out quite fairly that no one sponsors their project or gives them any money in [exchange for] their free time,” Howell said.
Open source developers often build a product or tool because they themselves need it, and they choose to share it for free with the broader community. Howell said this was his original motivation in launching Homebrew.
“When an open source developer gives [their code] to the community, it becomes a vital part of the machinery that runs the internet, like a tower of blocks … suddenly, they’re obligated to maintain these things, or they’re breaking the internet,” he added.
Through digital contracts, Tea aims to distribute value to open source devs in what Howell likened to a “loyalty scheme,” wherein sponsors of open source projects can receive perks such as special access to the project developers in return for their investment.
Its product will automate the process for companies and individuals who use open source software to sponsor its developers. Howell hopes that Tea can play a role in helping the web3 ecosystem evolve in a direction more supportive of open source developers than the internet itself, or web2, did.
“For 80 to 90% of most web2 companies, their stack is open source. They contribute a bit, they feel bad about it, but they have no good system for distributing that value to all of the open source they use. The amount of manpower that this would take is astronomical,” Howell said. “So here we are, proposing this new way of automating it for them to enough of an extent that they can actually help the ecosystem that they depend upon.”
Tea’s value seems to lie in its ability to guarantee security and reliability to users of open source software projects, who in turn will be incentivized to compensate developers on Tea for those assurances. The software developed with Tea will remain free for users — a core tenet for much of the open source community — while developers will be able to earn compensation for their work indirectly, Howell said. This means that even if a sponsor doesn’t directly back a particular project, Tea’s “inflationary mechanism” will assess each project’s popularity within the community and allocate rewards proportionally across the Tea ecosystem.
A developer who wants to participate in receiving rewards would complete their project and register it to a “graph,” or database, maintained by Tea. The graph will also register any dependencies the project relied on to be built, Howell explained. He noted that Tea will bootstrap its graph from Homebrew, meaning it will launch with a pre-existing database of projects that were also registered with Homebrew.
Once a project is built, Tea creates a new security layer that will notify both the users and owners of that project if something in its stack ends up being broken, he added.
Those participating in the Tea ecosystem can reward developers by purchasing utility tokens associated with each project, which will give the participants access to special agreements with the project’s developers. For example, a token holder could be granted a license agreement in which the developers could guarantee they will provide ongoing support for the project.
Tea will also feature a “slashing” mechanism, wherein control of a project can be transferred from one developer to another in the event that the project needs urgent support and its creator is unwilling or unable to provide it after a designated grace period, according to Howell.
“We’re building this decentralized graph for open source, and we’re going to offer that to everybody,” Howell’s co-founder Tim Lewis told TechCrunch.
“There are famous examples of open source developers yanking their packages from the internet, which caused development trouble, and sometimes, it’s kind of pernicious in the damages caused. While I respect the desire and freedom [of the developer] to do such things, we think the open source ecosystem is more important than one person’s bad day. So our graph is an immutable, decentralized and fundamentally much more secure way for open source to be stored in reference,” Lewis said.