published: April 16, 2023 - last updated: April 19, 2023
This post is a companion to my other post on Open Source Projects as Persistent 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.
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:
Threshold conditional licensing essentially uses the software license to achieve these things. It works like this:
Basically: during any period where the threshold isn't satisfied sponsors are the only people who have permissive license access to the project. Keep in mind that permissive license access would just be another sponsor benefit on top of voting rights as discussed in the companion post.
I'm assuming it's legally possible to write a license like this, please reach out if you're confident it isn't possible or if you have resources that could make it possible.
This structure meets our criteria:
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 sponsorship, 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):
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.
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.