Monetizing Open Source with Fairware: Interview with Virgil Dupras

fairware_feat

There has been a long standing belief (or perhaps more accurately, fear), that developers who chose to release the source code for their software under a free and open license can’t turn their project into a viable source of income.

It’s not hard to see how this negative connotation has developed. Those who may not be well versed in the various free and open licenses may believe that they are literally prohibited from charging for their software. Others may fall victim to the failed logic that, if the source is freely available, people won’t pay for the convenience of a binary build.

For whatever the reason, developers worried about losing revenue have traditionally either kept their source closed or resorted to desperate attempts at forcing their users into donating.

Virgil Dupras

But Virgil Dupras thinks he may have found a way to turn a developers open source labor of love into a way to keep the lights turned on, which he calls Fairware. We recently got the chance to talk with Virgil about how the Fairware concept has worked for him, and how he made the leap from closed to open source without losing any money in the process.

Hardcoded Software

The Powerbase: Virgil, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Why don’t you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today?

Virgil: I started my career as a Delphi developer in 2002 after 3 years of studies in a technical school in Québec, Canada. I worked here and there until 2005, at which time I started working full time on a project I had started in 2001, Mp3 Filter (it later became dupeGuru Music Edition). That project was the flagship product of the website I created in 2002, Hardcoded Software.

Hardcoded Software only started making real money when I started supporting Mac OS X (in 2005, I dropped Delphi and started using Python, thus enabling cross-platform apps). At the time, it surprised me since there was so few Mac users compared to Windows. But then, I understood that it’s a cultural thing: Mac users are used to paying for software where Windows users are used to cracking them.

I was really happy about that new development because I could continue to work on Hardcoded Software projects full time, which I did.

In 2009, I was inspired by an initiative by E Text Editor’s developer to reconcile money and open source and I started my own initiative. I made my program source code publicly available under a special “delayed open source” license which made the code fully open source two years after its publication.

A year later, unconvinced by my previous initiative, I started Fairware, which is open source with a clear “social contract” between developers and their users where users are expected to compensate developers for their development time.

The Powerbase: You’ve been developing software for quite some time now and have amassed an impressive library of software. What are your current projects?

Virgil: I’m a bit uninspired these days, so I mostly maintain my current applications. I’m planning on giving a new development push to PdfMasher, my latest project, which has been on the back burner lately.

In the last months, I’ve mostly worked on Python/Cocoa developer tools, namely ObjP (a Python<–>Objective-C bridge with a code generation approach) and my new baby, xibless (a Cocoa UI code generator to get rid of XIB and XCode).

Going Open Source

The Powerbase: Your software used to be closed source, but in 2009 you decided to make the leap and license your projects under a modified BSD license. What prompted you to try your hand at free software? Why modify the BSD license?

Virgil: Ego I guess. I like beautiful code and I’m proud when I produce some. Open source allows you to share that code.

Then come the rational reasons, such as the silliness of closed source. Have you seen all these apps in the Mac App Store that basically do the same thing? How silly is it to create the same apps over and over again in order to compete? Closed source wastes a lot of development time that could otherwise be used to improve existing apps.

As for the modified BSD license, I was originally very afraid to let go of my “intellectual property”. It was my livelihood. It turns out I was wrong, but still, I chose that license out of fear.

The Powerbase: You mention on your site that opening up the source of your software didn’t lose you any income, but it did nothing to get other developers involved. Why do you think other developers stayed away?

Virgil: I wish I knew. My guess is that this is a problem that most open source projects face. Even when you look at not-for-money open source projects, many of them are only maintained by this one guy.

Another of my guess is that the learning curve to get in one of my codebases is too steep, but I’ve made a big effort to document it and I also make it abundantly clear that I’m willing to help. Now I’m more inclined to think that I simply suck at marketing.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wolftune Aaron Wolf

    This reminds me a bit of the Creator Endorsed Mark, which I think is generally superior.
    See http://questioncopyright.org/creator_endorsed

    This discussion of fairware is great regarding the value of social contract and transparency where users understand what they are paying for. It’s grossly unfair when someone luckily gets a million buys of his $1 app while there are lots of other duplicates that just didn’t get the focus. The money just could have been allocated better than to randomly make someone unfairly rich and waste other people’s time.

    The value of the Creator Endorsed Mark is that it lives on top of any license. In other words, a common license can be used, and a very clear visual thing is present. I think this works best with physical media where the endorsement mark is visible. There’s some level where the social contract is best reinforced when there’s a mechanism to show off your good will to bystanders.

    I wonder if there could be a non-obtrusive way to encourage the social contract: I.e. have a logo like the endorsement mark that is in a prominent but unobtrusive location in the UI, so that the user is always reminded that they are a good person who supported the software…

    • http://profiles.google.com/wolftune Aaron Wolf

      Also, I don’t have the answer to this, but fair in some way ideally should reflect both capacity to pay (i.e. user wealth) and how many users there are. I guess I’m talking about matched payments or something. Like there should be a system where someone can commit to paying a certain amount for every other user who also pays a certain amount: “I’ll pay 1 cent for every other user who does the same, up to $35″ for example. Thus, I’m not going to be a sucker and pay for everything and then everyone else is off the hook.
      This could be complex to implement but this is a big aspect of fairness. It isn’t just developers getting paid, it’s payers having a fair burden instead of some donating and others freeloading.

    • http://www.hardcoded.net/ Virgil Dupras

      You say that one of the strengths of Creator Endorsed Mark is that it lives on top of any license: So does Fairware. The license for my apps are both unmodified BSD and GPL. The references to modified BSD in the article refer to an initiative that predates Fairware.

      As the “dual mode” experiment shows, even a pop up isn’t enough to encourage the social contract (most people don’t bother reading it), so I doubt that a simple logo would do the job.

      As for your suggestion for a system to ensure a fair contribution burden among users, it could be interesting, but I fear that it would be exceedingly complicated to implement.

      Moreover, as long as development of the project continues, the burden is rather evenly shared because you, as a contributor, stops being bothered by the fairware reminder when other users continue to be. Eventually, we can guess that all fair users will have paid their fair share if development continues long enough to get to that point (the point of “exhausing” all contribution potential from a project).

      Worrying about freeloaders is generally a bad idea because they will always exist, whatever you do.

      • http://profiles.google.com/wolftune Aaron Wolf

        I agree that there will always be freeloaders, but systems that discourage that are worthwhile. If you just get someone over the hump once, then they have a different self-image and are less likely to freeload in the future. This isn’t speculation, this is based on scientific research, such as from Dan Ariely (see his book Predictably Irrational)

        I personally am more likely to donate when I can be part of a matched thing. I like feeling that we are all agreeing to donate instead of my volunteering without anyone else committing.

        Anyway, the best solutions will have to be more systematic. When you or anyone else introduces novel ideas, there’s always an uphill battle to get people to bother paying attention. If this system were ubiquitous, everyone would deal with it.

        Good luck!

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