We could use bothersome licenses as an open source support incentive. Should we?

What does the open source social contract demand?

published: April 16, 2023 - last updated: February 2, 2024

This post is a companion to my other post on Open Source Projects as Adaptive Democracy Cooperatives, if you haven't read that, please do so.

This post discusses the concepts of threshold conditional licensing and constitutional buyouts. I'm somewhat nervous about both of these ideas, but first I need to explain how they work and we'll deal with my misgivings afterward.

§ Threshold conditional licensing

This idea is inspired by assurance contracts (opens new window) (where some piece of work is only released after the creator is paid for the work) and Caleb Porzio's "sponsorware" concept (opens new window) (where a project is only released as open source after the creator meets a certain threshold of sponsorship). The most obvious and serious problem with assurance contracts is that they only work for "one-time" payments, not ongoing maintenance and improvement.

We want to create a structure that:

  • Allows all the anti-rival (opens new window) aspects of the project to remain open (Porzio only found durable success later by offering premium tutorial screencasts, which would improve the project if they were open).
  • Incentivizes collective action to raise support high enough for project maintainers to thrive.
  • Incentivizes durable support over the long term.

Threshold conditional licensing essentially uses the software license to achieve these things. It works like this:

  • The information good is released to the public from the beginning, but using some kind of pro-socially restrictive license, such as GPL, AGPL, or creative commons share-alike or non-commercial.
  • Supporting members are given the right to use the project according to a more normal permissive license (the license is "conditional" on membership).
  • If the project rises above a certain threshold of monthly support the project switches to a more permissive license for everyone.
  • If the project falls below that threshold at any time the project switches back to the conditional license.

Basically: during any period where the threshold isn't satisfied, supporting members are the only people who have permissive license access to the project. Keep in mind that permissive license access would just be another member benefit on top of voting rights as discussed in the companion post.

It seems at first glance this license structure is legally possible. (opens new window) Please reach out if you have strong reason to believe it isn't!

This structure meets our criteria:

  • Can keep all the anti-rivalry, since the only uses of the project that aren't always allowed are those that don't "give back" in some way. Community members can freely learn and tinker and build libraries and create tutorials without being required to pay first.
  • It's in the community's collective interest to get support above the threshold, since permissive licenses are simpler for everyone.
  • Profit-motivated users can easily dispel any license worry by supporting for the long term, and they have a financial incentive to do so.

§ Constitutional buyout

But suppose merely building a thriving and self-sustaining project isn't enough.

What if the founders think the project would be so valuable to society they believe they would deserve a large payday once it has demonstrated its value?

Or what if the project is too difficult to bootstrap with nothing but community support, and they need to seek the support of venture capital to get it off the ground? Venture capitalists demand outsize returns in exchange for their risk, so a self-sustaining project without any other attached businesses isn't good enough.

Constitutional buyouts are one possible answer, and are essentially a form of "exit-to-community" (opens new window):

  • At the founding of the project, the root constitution is constructed such that it cannot be changed without the founders' approval, giving them veto control. The root constitution is "split" to create a purely democratic sub-constitution where community members make whatever governance decisions are possible without veto from the founders.
  • The founders set some "constitutional buyout price". If the community gathers and pays that price to the founders, the democratic sub-constitution becomes the root constitution, removing the founders' veto and making the cooperative fully community controlled.

A constitutional buyout threshold could be combined with the smooth "founder to community transition" model discussed in the companion post, since there are still democratic decisions to be made before the buyout.

§ My misgivings about these ideas

Now we're in rant/venting territory, so I'm just going to list things and share my feelings. Reach out if you have specific thoughts.

  • Constitutional buyouts make the pre-buyout cooperative a bit of a charade. Certainly the community would value input on other things, but only if the founders didn't routinely just ignore or veto that input. I have no idea how much this matters.

  • I kinda hate the concept of intellectual property (opens new window), and it would bother me to use a system that so completely relied on copyright law in order to function, even if it is a more clever use. Do we entrench intellectual property law if we use it in more ways? Would that undermine better future ways to support intellectual work?

  • Do constitutional buyouts give the founders an incentive to make the community want to "make them go away"? Otherwise wouldn't the community fight to keep the founders around as long as possible, delaying the payout? Would combining a constitutional buyout with the permanent move to a permissive license allay that worry? It seems constitutional buyout only really makes sense from an incentive perspective if the community is hoping to get rid of some "headache" such as conditional licensing.

In general though, my worries are that these ideas are just really "anti-social". They assume low trust from the community and treat everything like a transaction. They seem to violate some social contract.

Frustratingly though, low trust and transactional thinking are really actually the point. Not everyone (speaking of myself here) is good at developing trust with a large community, but they have good ideas and good work to do regardless. Are such people doomed to only find support in corporate employment or traditional entrepreneurship? Is it impossible for such people to be enlisted to build cooperative goods? Don't we need low trust ways for these people to be given incremental opportunities to prove themselves without wasting time working on things that aren't their best possible idea?

I have the voices of the Oxide and Friends crew in my head, talking about the social contract and the spirit of working together (opens new window). But aren't they forgetting that not all projects can be incubated by wealthy companies where engineers can convince their bosses to let them work on crazy things (opens new window), or a venture-backed startup with an open source compatible model? (opens new window)

It doesn't feel great to come up with "headaches" to give to the community to bother them into supporting useful projects, rather than trusting in mutual obligation and collective effort. But it also doesn't feel great for oblivious free-riders to neglect critical infrastructure until it's too late (opens new window), let alone ignore unproven ideas that could still massively improve society (opens new window).

We need ways for crazy "entrepreneurial" open source projects to exist. Right now open source can only find support if it can be completed within academia, or by people who have somehow amassed a large community, or on the job at for-profit companies, or on shoestring budgets at non-profits, or in the exhausted nights and weekends of the delusionally passionate.

I don't know what the social contract demands. But if it gets in the way of allowing people to live prosperous lives while they build valuable and transformative cooperative goods, then we need to get a new social contract.

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