To illustrate open source sophistication, just look how easy it has become to start and manage projects. It is almost a cookie-cutter procedure. You pick one of a number of well known licenses, manage the code on SourceForge.net or Launchpad, communicate with the project through skype and mailing lists, and tell the world about it using your blog plus Twitter. Within an afternoon you have set up infrastructure to support efficient collaborative development with team members from Seattle to Singapore. The number of projects itself makes the point: SourceForge.net alone has over 230,000 projects.
Things get much harder if you want to make a decent living from a successful project. It’s not that there is a lack of models to choose. You could form a commercial venture that offers closed source/licensed versions of your open source project. However, as many of us have seen with MySQL AB and other companies, commercial efforts have a tendency to conflict badly with broader community interests or those of other companies that might be useful partners. For this reason, they don’t even necessarily maximize the value of the original commercial effort.
You could of course try to create a foundation like Apache or Eclipse. However, these generally require established software and large commercial backers. The current experience of the fledging Open Database Alliance and other efforts shows that it can be quite complex to create such organizations from scratch even with well-established code and well-known players. This is not a model that can be repeated across a wide number of different projects large and small.
Finally, you could sell consulting and support for your project. The problem with the consulting model is that it is not scalable—in order to make a decent living you have to work on customer problems. The pro-bono work like extending the project or tending to a community tends to fall by the wayside unless you can get a customer to pay for it.
The fact that it is hard to make money off open source is a symptom of a larger problem: we are losing the wider social benefits that for many people are the real point of open source software. This is an economic problem: how do we allow hackers to make a reasonable living on open source projects while maximizing the long-term value of the software to the widest possible number of users? It turns out there’s a reasonable economic model that can do this: cooperatives, which are defined as follows in Wikipedia.
a legal entity owned and democratically controlled [equally] by its members
Cooperatives have existed for centuries in many different forms and have successfully solved problems ranging from providing student housing to delivering consumer goods like sporting equipment on a grand scale. We need a new form of cooperative that I propose to call the Open Source Hackers Cooperative, or Hackers Co-op for short. The Hackers Co-op has three different but co-equal types of members:
- Hackers, who are the core committers to the project and stewards of the code
- Sponsors, who supply funding and labor
- Community members, who use the software, test it, and contribute patches
Here are the organizational principles for an Open Source Hackers Cooperative:
- The Co-op is a non-profit. It’s not for sale and there is no exit strategy. Like all co-ops, it exists to maximize benefits for its members.
- Hackers work directly for the Co-op. Their time is divided between implementing features that interest them, integrating patches as well as fixing bugs reported from the community, and implementing features for sponsors.
- Sponsors provide long-term funds and/or labor to the Co-op. Sponsors build businesses on the open source software and kick back a percentage of the business value in return for support and new features. They can also contribute labor for specific co-op tasks. Sponsors need not be for-profit businesses. They could in some cases even be governments or NGOs. The point is that they fund the software based on its value, for example through grants.
- Community members provide leverage to the development model. They use the software, provide basic support through forums, and contribute patches for bugs and small features. These activities leverage the hackers who can use community patches and feedback to evolve the software. This is a very efficient development model.
- The Co-op is a democracy. Co-op members vote on allocation of hacker resources. The vote is structured to keep a single group of members from hijacking the entire Co-op by dividing hacker time into a pie with allocations for the interests of each member type. Sponsors vote for their section of the pie using a vote weighted by their relative funding contributions--sponsors are not equal to encourage competition to commit more funds. Hackers effectively vote their portion by doing whatever they want with the time they get for personal projects. Community members vote through surveys or some other reasonable mechanism.
- The Co-op has elected officers. There is a chief economist who is in charge of the business model and plans finances, contracts with sponsors, arranges employment contracts, etc. There is also a chief technologist who ensures project infrastructure and moderates technical discussions. Co-op officers are elected or at least approved by the members at large.
- The Co-op pays dividends. Some open source projects are quite valuable, so a well-run co-op could easily become very profitable. The excess profits are distributed to hackers in the form of retirement and other benefits, to sponsors in the form of cash rebates, and to community members in the form of conferences, hiring of new hackers to work on features, improved infrastructure, etc.
Such conditions hold for a variety of system software like database management systems, app servers, and communications packages. With a little thought they could apply broadly to user applications like accounting systems or voting software, which so far are relatively rare in open source. The Co-op is model is quite stable, because it aligns interests in such a way that everyone does better if they stick together.
- Hackers earn a stable, comfortable living and public recognition for working on software that they enjoy. “Comfortable” in this context means salary and benefits equivalent to a typical EU country like Germany or Finland, which are the gold standard for employee compensation. This works economically because hackers are (a) very productive to begin with and (b) become more so by leveraging an active user community. Hackers are motivated to produce because the more viable the software is, the better the co-op does, and the more benefits they receive.
- Sponsors get features that they need using a productive open source hacking development model. This is a replacement for models like trying to take the software private and farming it out to low-cost offshore locations, which experience has shown to be badly broken on a number of levels. More important, sponsors get stability in the sense that the software cannot be taken over by hostile corporate interests and is supported over the long term, which lowers the risk of building businesses on it. They are motivated to contribute more in order to vote more resources for tasks that help their businesses.
- Community members get software that is continuously supported and evolving rapidly to add features they need. They get assurance that valuable patches will be integrated. They are motivated to use, test, and develop patches for the software as that further increases its value to them and leads to recognition as authorities on the project.
I don't know if there are projects already following this model. Selena Deckelman already used the term "Hacker's Cooperative" though from a somewhat different perspective. If you know of anyone who has worked through the cooperative economics fully I would appreciate hearing from you. Meanwhile, this is not a theoretical question for at least a couple of reasons.
First, I work for a for-profit company that is willing to sponsor projects in exactly the way described in this article. We are looking for (a) control, (b) stability, and (c) a development model that is cheaper than doing it ourselves. If such cooperatives existed we would be interested in them. I'm sure we are not alone, because this is how all for-profit businesses tend to think. The cooperative is a viable model because of the way it reinforces and maximizes member interests.
Second, the Hacker Co-op leads to some interesting questions about how to design software that promotes the leveraging effect of an open source community. It is possible to design even application software so the your users don't all have to be coders in order to contribute. If you want to create something really big out of your open source project (or just have a nice job) it helps to think these issues through before you write much code. Maybe it's the first thing on the list after you set up your new project.