June 14, 2018
Profit for Us, Sustainability for You evolving the open source conversation to solve open source inequity
We used to talk of open source as a commons enriching all comers. Now we talk of open source as infrastructure to sustain. That shift acknowledges how much of open source is inputs and tooling for proprietary software development, not a richer commons. But when the free work stops coming, sustainability asks what projects need to keep pace, not what people deserve as reward for value delivered. Open source feels unfair because reward received falls shockingly short of value delivered, especially for experienced independents. Sustainability misses the problem by sidestepping value, asking instead how consumers can keep it flowing cheap.
Company-consumers of open source don’t settle for sustenance at cost. They work for profit, and charge what the market will bear. Outside the corporate fold, today’s initiatives tell open source developers to court patrons closer to the money, that dependence on enlightened self-interest is better living than dependence on charity. Utterly disparate expectations.
Sustainability thinking threatens to ingrain that asymmetry. Profit for us, sustainability for you. So what can you do to sustain this on less? Train up unburned replacements? Move to Thailand? Rent forever? Put off kids?
The sustainability conversation won’t solve open source inequity for independent developers and small producer firms. It doesn’t try. The conversation that solves open source inequity is open source profitability. What business models work, how do we improve them, and how can more people run them successfully? How do we tie open source support to open source value?
Sustainability was a necessary, intermediate step toward the conversation open source needs. And a sign that the conversation can evolve. It’s worth studying how.
Open source developers hacking libraries and tools work as specialists. They spend their time creating and refining specific precursors to larger, more general projects. Eventually, specialized work becomes full-time, leaving specialists short of cycles to reap commons rewards by integrating others’ work in proprietary products and services. Given their efficiency on-specialty, they create more intrinsic value spending time that way. But they reap less reward than they would as generalist consumers, and train away from those skills sets, business and technical.
Net result: the commons isn’t equally exploitable by all, or even by all programmers. It won’t compensate efficient producers. Cognitive dissonance rattles commons reciprocity apart in collective open source consciousness. Sustainable-infrastructure metaphors rise to the top.
What companies can’t do for a profit, we don’t expect them to do very long. But the archetypical open source hacker always comes batteries-included. Incentive is never in question, or it’s paid out in currency that doesn’t convert to cash: learning or fame, beauty or correctness, obsession or addiction. Like oil wells, gold seams, and timberland, all are resources harvestable for a profit by others. But these motives can and do exhaust. Employees earning good bread in staid corporate environments relish outside open source opportunity, to spice up otherwise sated working lives. But experienced, talented independents can’t skip to love, esteem, and self-actualization on perpetually grumbling financial stomachs.
Compensation matters to open source producers, too. Sustenance without reward won’t sustain very long. Which is where we stand today.
The sustainability evolution of the open source conversation required setting stereotypes of developers aside. The profitability evolution of the open source conversation requires setting stereotypes of business aside.
Having a business model doesn’t mean throwing ethics or good taste into a fire. “Business” has a bad rep among idealists, thanks-no-thanks to large corporations. But it’s perfectly possible to start and run a very idealistic business, keep it relatively small, and consider goals above or in addition to profit. “Profit” also has a bad rep, in part because we don’t sully wages and fees for honest work by individuals with the term, even when they exceed immediate needs. It’s possible to profit without exploiting anyone. In fact, profit tends to show that you yourself aren’t being exploited. Your abilities, not your patron or your donors, should decide what kind and quality of life you can manage, and where. Value is leverage.
License Zero aims to prove these principles in practice, by answering head-on the major questions of open source profitability. License Zero makes a proven business model, dual-licensing, accessible to individual coder-maintainers and small firms. It facilitates markets for license fees that reflect work value, not subsistence costs or charity. It’s non-exclusive for those who use it, and not the only method that small players could adopt. But I think it’s by far the most forthright in addressing the inequities of open source production today.