Monetizing Open Source with Fairware: Interview with Virgil Dupras

fairware_feat

Implementing Fairware

The Powerbase: There’s been a lot of talk lately about how hard it is to make money with an open source project, but it seems like you’ve managed to pull it off. What would your message be to developers who are looking to earn money off of their open source project? Is Fairware the answer?

Virgil: Of course, it always depends on the type of software being developed. If it targets businesses, I’m not sure if Fairware could work well. If it only has 3 users, it’s not gonna work either. But for wide audience apps (typically distributed as shareware), I’d be inclined to say that Fairware is one of the most efficient way to go, yes.

The Powerbase: How can developers get started with releasing their own software as Fairware? Are there any special considerations or pitfalls they should be aware of?

Virgil: Fairware websites (where all hours and contribution informations are published) and reminders are not trivial to set up, so if you want to adopt Fairware, you’re in for a several hours of work. The code for the Fairware website is open source and hosted at https://bitbucket.org/hsoft/openhs. Contact me if you want to do that, I’ll help you get set up.

The only trap I can think of, I didn’t fall in and it concerns the release of intellectual property. If your move to Fairware is one from closed source, there is a risk that someone simply forks your code, changes the name and becomes your competitor. That’s an incredibly dickish move, but it’s possible and it could indeed hurt your bottom line.

I’d recommend opening closed source only if your app already has a strong brand recognition (google rankings and stuff). This way, even if someone forks your code and competes with you, he will have to make significant investments to surpass your brand recognition.

The Powerbase: As a developer who has made the successful leap from closed to open source, what message would you have for other developers who are considering opening up their source?

Virgil: When coming from the closed source world, we tend to see our code as precious intellectual property and we fear that it is stolen from us. At the individual level, it makes sense, but at a macro level, it’s counter-productive. We have to recognize that open source makes software development more efficient and we have to work towards expanding it. One of the main roadblock, as we know, is the problem of individual remuneration for work invested in open source software.

With a little collective effort (and leap of faith), we can break that pre-conception that “open source” means “free stuff”, expand open source’s presence and thus make the world a better place.

While Virgil’s Fairware concept might not work for all open source projects, it’s a very interesting take on the subject and is something developers should consider when looking to monetize open source software. The Powerbase wishes Virgil continued success with his suite of open source programs, and hope other developers take up his challenge of implementing their own Fairware systems.


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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