Category Archives: etc

Indirect funding and the limits of free software patronage

A few thoughts about direct and indirect funding for free software development.

Proprietary software is often sold at retail, which makes for a diverse economic model. Let’s say that a million people buy a $10 yearly license for your iWidgetFactoryPro™. This year you’ll have $10,000,000 dollars, much of which can be used to fund future iWidgetFactoryPro™ development. If you lose fifty thousand users next year, you’ll have $500,000 less to work with. That’s a lot of cabbage. But you’ll still have $9,500,000, enough to carry on your product development, perhaps with a slightly reduced scope. Retail pricing spreads the risk around.

Most free software is not sold in a retail fashion. A single company might pay for the development of a tool, and then decide to release it under a free license. Or a tool’s builders may fund development themselves, with their own money or their own free time. Or a project that starts off as a labor of love may become important enough that a number of companies volunteer resources to improve it. In any of these cases, the funding model is highly centralized. Instead of a million users who share the financial burden roughly equally, as with retail software, a free tool may have a million users but just a small handful of funders, each of which is footing a disproportionately large part of the bill. It’s a precarious setup not merely because the sheer number of funders is so small, but also because the costs are distributed in a way that’s so uneven – and unfair! – that individual funders have arguably more inclination to walk away than the retail licensee who’s paid a lousy ten bucks for a copy of iWidgetFactoryPro™.

The asymmetrical funding model for free software is the cause of much hand-wringing among the individuals who maintain free software projects. How does a volunteer, a solopreneur, a small businessperson, an underfunded or unfunded Desperado, take on the huge and often unrewarding task of maintaining a popular project, while still managing to make money? My friend Daniel Bachhuber has written a number of posts recently in which he struggles with this problem, and is experimenting with a couple different models:

The key idea behind Sparks is to create a space where WordPress-based businesses can contribute to an open source roadmap, collaboratively prioritize, and then share the cost of development and maintenance […] When I explain the concept of Sparks to a prospective customer, they get it. It makes a ton of sense to share the burden of building and maintaining boring, business-critical infrastructure.

The strategy is to hedge against some of the instability of the “patronage” model – free software tools being supported by a very small group of generous funders – toward a more diversified financial base.

The structure of “Sparks” – crowdfunding, but where the members of the “crowd” are businesses with budgets – moves toward retail software in two ways that are worth considering. First, by getting interested individuals to take an equal share in funding the software, it tries to make the funding model more fair. Second, by tying the decision of which tools to build to the number of voters (or backers, or whatever) in support of that specific tool, it tries to make the funding model more direct.

Can this work? Direct funding models are kind of like health insurance exchanges: the economics only work if there’s a mandate that everyone participate. Proprietary software licensing is one such mandate. With free software, it’s an uphill slog, and a hard sell.

I have mostly given up on direct client funding for my free software work. There are a couple of interconnected problems:

  • Clients can be convinced to pay for something new and shiny and released with public credit to their name. But fewer want to pay for maintaining something old and boring and anonymous.
  • Once a project is released and in broad use, the client’s ongoing needs for improvement often (usually) diverge with the needs of the broader community.
  • When you are a maintainer of a large software project, quid pro quo contributions – “we’ll pay you to add this feature to WordPress” – are fraught with ethical and practical difficulties.
  • The things that clients want to build are not usually the things that I want to build, or the things that I think need to be built.

As direct funding has become less attractive and more difficult to manage, I’ve turned more toward indirect models. I’ve spoken and written at length about what I call “the reputation cycle”. This is the idea that time spent contributing to free software can improve your reputation, which allows you to increase your rates, which allows you to bill fewer hours, which allows you to contribute more time to free software. Over the last few years, I’ve ratched myself up to the point where I spend roughly 50% of my working time doing work that is not paid for by a client.

Or, at least, not paid for directly. Client work subsidizes free software work, but the subsidy is indirect. This indirectness avoids most of the problems sketched above. My decisions about how and where to contribute to the projects I’m involved with are made based on my own interests and my own assessment of project priorities and needs. Since the work is not being done under the aegis of any specific client relationship, I’m not bound by any specific client expectations.

If not framed correctly, the indirect model can feel vaguely dishonest. It involves charging a higher rate to paying customers, without providing any direct benefit for the increased cost. In one sense, this feeling is clearly misguided; the software I choose to work on in my “free” time is the very same software that powers my clients’ sites. They’re reaping benefits that are indirect – but not that indirect.

More importantly, the sense of dishonesty is misplaced because there’s no deception involved. The model is indirect, but it’s not implicit. My message for potential clients is pretty explicit: When you hire me, you are not only buying top-quality technical work, but you are also funding the more general improvement of the free software projects in which I’m involved. It’s part of the brand. It’s less Robin Hood – illicit redistribution of funds – than, say, buying organic milk: you pay more for a slightly better product, knowing that part of the extra cost goes toward the normalization of a system of production that’s superior to the conventional system.

Can this funding model – indirect, but explicit about it – be scaled? Probably not. Like patronage, it depends on the good will of a fairly small number of benevolent folks – developers and clients – to shoulder the burden of the other 99% of users. But there’s something noble about it too. A totally “fair” system, in which each user pays an equal amount to use a piece of software, ignores the fact that not all users have equal resources. One of the beauties of free software is that the generosity of those who can afford to contribute can benefit those who cannot.


Willa and Wally

My kids are named Wilhelmina and Walter. So when I saw this image in a New York Times article about items recently unearthed in Dr Seuss’s filing cabinets, I swooned:


I sent a link to my wife, and told her I wished I could get it in poster size.

Yesterday, I got an early birthday present – my wife had sent the link to my mother, who painted me a slightly modified version:


Thanks, Mom and Rebecca 🙂

A New York City farewell eating tour

Posting this mostly for my own records.

Next week, I’m moving away from New York. Starting with a pizza tour a few weeks ago, I’m trying to cram in some quality NYC meals in my last stretch as a New Yorker. Some of these are classic places, some are on the list for sentimental reasons. Here’s a summary of where I’ve been in the past few weeks, along with a few places slotted for my remaining 10 days:

First, the pizza joints:


  • Bagels: have been hitting my local, but would like to get a last trip to The Bagel Hole
  • Court Pastry Shop, for the spumoni and maybe a lobster tail
  • White sauce hot sauce – probably won’t make it to my favorite Halal cart (near Queens College), but trying to patronize all my neighborhood stands
  • Some quality pastrami – probably Pastrami Queen, which is near my place and is ridiculous
  • A last slice of the weirdly delicious cheesecake at my favorite diner

The characters in the Cheers opening: A critical analysis

One of the great TV memories of my childhood is the Cheers opening sequence. I’m a great lover of TV theme songs, and I remember Cheers being one of my favorites. I’ve been rewatching Cheers, and the show is still great, but I find the old-timey images used during the opening sequence to be much odder than I remember. A casual search suggests that no one has ever done a true analysis of these pictures. I humbly accept the responsibility myself.

I’ll start with the pictures of people who look like the kind of folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with in a bar. The more irksome characters are at the end of the list.

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep

Mustachioed Barkeep

Oddly, I find this guy’s mustache to be wholesome and comforting. Maybe it’s because I lived in Brooklyn for so long. I know he works for tips, but I’m also impressed by how he manages to have one of the only non-lecherous smiles in the entire sequence. Sadly, after the death of Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, they removed this likable chap from the opening sequence.

The Champion

The Champion

The Champion

Also known as the “We Win” guy. Bonus: The fair-haired dude hoisting a pint always makes me think of Matt Mullenweg.

Tom Joad

Tom Joad

Tom Joad

The dude with the Jed Clampett hat and the five-o-clock shadow is pure salt-of-the-earth. I feel like most Woody Guthrie songs are about this guy.




Even as a kid, I remember feeling bad that they chose an overweight guy to represent Norm. As if his weight is his only salient quality. Why not show an accountant? In any case, I respect a guy who can pull off a suit of that color. To me, one of the great mysteries has always been: what is he handing to the woman in the red skirt? The TV remote wouldn’t be invented for another 40 years.

The Madam

The Madam

The Madam

This woman seems like she’s the only drinker in the entire intro who is maintaining control over herself. I can respect that. The composition of this shot reminds me of that Renoir painting where everyone’s checking everyone else out.

Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous

Kid Gorgeous

The pale fellow in the jacket doesn’t look old enough to be drinking in this establishment, and his complexion makes me suspect that he’s nervous about being caught. I always imagine him as having been a 12-year-old drummer boy for the Confederate Army, returned to his local tavern as a 17-year-old amputee veteran. Notice that his legs are not visible in this picture.

The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers

The Cognac Brothers

Does he really need that cane? Or is he just trying to intimidate? Is he the bouncer, or just waiting for his carriageman to bring the team around? So many questions.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags

Rich Uncle Pennybags

You can’t afford what this guy is drinking.

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

Top Hat Asshole and Smarmy Newsboy

The two most insufferable people in the sequence are also the last two, and boy, do they leave a bad taste in your mouth. Both are clearly looking to start a fight. The guy on the left, apparently drinking a $20 Trappist ale, is barely managing to hide his disdain for everyone around him. The dude on the right appears to be bragging about hooking up with your sister. (The guy in the bottom right, who looks as if he may in fact be dead, has pretty much checked out of the party.) I hate them so much.


I’ve spent a lucky thirteen years in New York City, but my time here is drawing to a close. My wonderful wife is entering a PhD program at the University of Chicago in the fall, so this summer we’ll be trading the First City for the Second.

I’m trying to untangle my thoughts about leaving my adopted New York and returning to my native Midwest. It’s heartbreaking, thrilling, terrifying, a huge relief. For the moment, I can say with confidence that I am excited to be relocating to a city that’s served as the setting for so many great theme songs. Nothing’s gonna stop me now!

I miss my camera

It’s been almost a year since I ditched my smartphone. For the most part, it’s been glorious. Like a slow-growing tumor, I’d hardly noticed the damage that years of carrying a smartphone was doing to my lifestyle and my psyche.

The one thing I legitimately miss is the camera. In one sense, I’m glad to buck my generation’s tendency toward hyperselfdocumentation. At the same time, I have kids. I took many hundreds of photos and videos of my first child on my smartphone. I’ve partially compensated for this with the second child by strategically storing cameras in various parts of my apartment, so there’s always one at hand. In the house, this works. But, with the approach of warm weather, I worry once again about the hassle of filling yet another pants pocket with yet another device.

Friends have suggested that I get a smartphone but don’t use the data. But this is like suggesting that I replace my extracted tumor, but this time put it a little further from vital organs.

I feel like I’d be more likely to carry a point-and-shoot camera if they were more svelte. If the iPhone 6 can take such beautiful pictures, why doesn’t someone market a standalone camera with the proportions of a smartphone? The thinnest cameras I’ve seen are double the thickness of even the bulkiest modern phone – way beyond the point of pocketability. Is there a device out there for me?


Reflecting on 2014, a couple of themes:

  • Reclaim. In the past, I’ve written about taking back technologies from corporate entities. This year, I’ve found myself embarking on what I consider to be the natural extension of Project Reclaim: taking back my attention from technologies. In April I ditched my smartphone, and in September I stopped using Twitter. Each decision arose from a desire to devote more of my limited mental and emotional energies on things that matter most to me, like my family and my work. In each case, the pull of inertia was strong – the natural thing was to continue using the tools, just like everyone else around me was doing – but in each case, the rewards of letting go have been significant.
  • Ease. My wife and I decided over dinner tonight that 2014 felt easy. We didn’t move this year. We enjoyed satisfying jobs and financial stability. Our son transitioned from a toddler to a very nice little boy. In contrast, our family has a number of very large changes coming in 2015, changes that will be hard in many ways. So the relative and welcome easiness of 2014 is worth a moment’s pause.
  • ShippingDuring 2014, BuddyPress shipped a number of major versions. I put a huge amount of time into BP 2.0, as both a developer and a release manager, and I think it paid off – IMHO it’s one of the most important releases in BuddyPress history. BuddyPress 2.2 will come in the first weeks of 2015, and it too promises to be a really important release. In addition, I was invited to join the WordPress core team for the 4.1 release, an experience that’s been fulfilling in its own way. Considered alongside a number of successful client project launches, I’ve been involved in a happily large number of solid software releases this year.

A big year ahead, but for now, за ваше здоровье!

Blogging heroes, 2014 edition

The best bloggers publish so regularly that it’s easy to take their work for granted. So, as 2014 winds down, I thought I’d take a moment to salute my favorite blogs of the year.

The main quality that earns a blogger my respect is fearlessness. In order to blog frequently, you’ve got to be willing to write on a broad range of topics, and to publish what might sometimes less-than-fully-formed work. Most authors (myself included) are too chicken to do these things. The writers listed here are not.

  • Samir Chopra – Philosophy, cricket, politics, parenthood, New York, literature, you get the idea.
  • Alan Levine – Alan is fond of saying that his tireless chronicling makes his blog a supplement to his memory: he can easily look back to see what he was doing and thinking just about any day in the last decade. We should all be so bold.
  • Audrey Watters – Independent journalist covering education and technology. Support her work.
  • Alan Jacobs – I follow Alan’s blog and tumblr in part to remember that there’s a way to engage in public intellectualism without being pandering or smarmy.

Thanks to all for your work in 2014!

Unpaid labor in academic and free software communities

There are many aspects of my current free software development work that are (thankfully!) very different from my previous life as an academic. But one way in which they’re similar is the way that one’s relationship to one’s own paid and unpaid labor is connected to one’s career progress, and the personality types that this structure attracts.

I’m a known advocate ([1], [2], [3]) for fostering a symbiotic relationship between my paid client work and my unpaid work on free software projects. And while I’m emphatic that there’s value in having these two parts of my career separate from (yet supportive of) each other, the separation embodies an unavoidable tension between what I’m paid to do and what earns the respect of my peers. If people know who I am, it’s probably because of volunteer work I’ve done for WordPress, not because of my client work. As such, there’s continual internal pressure for me to focus more of my mental and emotional energies on the unpaid work. Yet it’s important not to yield completely to this pressure, since my paid client work is critical, both in terms of the financial support and the technical inspiration it gives to my work on the free software projects. Balancing these two pressures is something I’m constantly struggling with.

The relationship between labor and rewards in academic work is similarly structured. Most academics are paid primarily for teaching duties, with service and research being important but often secondary, at least as far as the official job descriptions are concerned. Yet the system of advancement in academia is structured in such a way that one’s research and publication record is of paramount importance. And in many cases, volunteer labor – things like peer review and service to professional societies – is critical to one’s reputation as a scholar. Anyone in the academic world will recognize the tensions that this arrangement can produce.

The peculiar motivations baked into free software development and academia tend to attract similar sorts of overachievers. To rise to the top of your field, you’ve got to do large amounts of unpaid labor, while still doing enough of your paid labor to keep your job. This means that the most successful people tend to be those who are spending the greatest amount of their spare time working for free. A couple of consequences fall out of this arrangement. First, people who are already in a position of privilege (financial and otherwise) are able to climb the career ladder more easily. This setup also means thatt successful people are likely to have a sense of self-worth that is closely connected to their work. And these factors mean that successful academics as well as free software contributors are more likely to suffer from burnout.

Last year, DHH of Ruby on Rails wrote an interesting piece on “the perils of mixing open source and money”. I’m very sympathetic to many of his points about motivation: the tenor of a free software project, and the quality of the software that results, is largely a consequence of the fact that the creators of the software are not primarily motivated by financial concerns. This is something that academics figured out a long time ago. As such, I think that it’s important to continue to foster “reputation cycles” and other structures that help to enable talented developers to devote energies to free software without directly paying them for it. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of tensions I describe above, because the separation of paid and unpaid work in this area can tend to be personally destructive at the same time that it’s valuable for the (software/academic) projects as a whole.