James Governor's Monkchips

The new Patreon economy

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10 years ago I used the phrase New Patronage Economy to describe how open source and cloud were changing the relationship between people, the work they do, and how that work is valued and paid for. At the time I was hopeful that open source would somewhat change the contract to favour the creators of the work.

“Big companies need to find ways to sponsor the grassroots; supporting open source, for example, is a great way to do it.”

“In this view of the world, open source, Creative Commons and Open Data, are even more important, because it may be that the only way the talent is willing to hand over its intellectual property is in the form of shared community assets. If code is open source I can work on it regardless of who I work for at any given time. Otherwise if I leave I have to leave my baby behind. The talent potentially has a lot more control. In the music world this might translate into a refusal to allow record companies to DRM-hobble works. And if companies want to buy the talent’s IP outright they may find that rates start to go up considerably.”

The sponsorship model has ticked along in the background, but as open source has exploded, further questions have emerged about how to sustain and maintain the maintainers. The Long Tail of open source projects is very poorly supported from a financial perspective.

Nadia Egbhal brought this tension to the fore with a great report, sponsored by The Ford Foundation, Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure.

“Our modern society runs on software. But the tools we use to build software are buckling under increased demand.

Nearly all software today relies on free, public code, written and maintained by communities of developers and other talent. This code can be used by anyone—from companies to individuals—to write their own software. Shared, public code makes up the digital infrastructure of our society today.

Everybody relies on shared code to write software, including Fortune 500 companies, government, major software companies and startups. In a world driven by technology, we are putting increased demand on those who maintain our digital infrastructure. Yet because these communities are not highly visible, the rest of the world has been slow to notice.

Just like physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure needs regular upkeep and maintenance. But financial support for digital infrastructure is much harder to come by.”

So how to support this infrastructure? Patreon is a membership platform designed to enable artists and creators to establish a sustainable income, a better packaged version of the digital tip jar. “Bringing patronage back to the arts“. In an age where the media is under severe pressure, independent voices have turned to Patreon to supplement their income and allow them to act as fourth estate.

For some of the best and most high profile software developers Patreon is doing the job. It works for folks like Eran Hammer.

Another platform organisation seeking to maintain the maintainers is OpenCollective, which supports open source projects. It’s being used a fair bit in the world of Javascript frameworks – such as GulpJS, Next.js, angular-fullstack, react-boilerplate.

MochaJS now has 56 backers and an annual budget of just around $24.5k.

Webpack though is the big kahuna – with 438 backers worth $104k per year.

That’s pretty awesome. The OpenCollective platform is nicely granular. If you look at the Collective’s SustainOSS event, for example, you can see individual line items on the budget such as childcare, travel for the photographer or the pre-conference dinner.

To the point above about the long tail of open source projects however, with both Patreon and OpenCollective some of the projects have no backers at all. Please go and fund something you use now!

We should also be wary of seeing direct support models as a panacea. Some companies are not contributing as much as they should to the people and communities building software they use, and in some cases make money from. You can make money with open source, but it’s extremely hard to make money from open source. That’s the reality. It reminds me a bit of the crazy notion gofundme is a reasonable alternative for affordable comprehensive healthcare.

Let’s do better.

3 comments

  1. Another option is find a way to get a company to hire the developers. Healthcare and benefits and longer term employment stability matter in the long run. These gofundme type of options are short term “mouse wheels” and not very sustainable for the developers. They’re not bad if developers who do this in their free time (and are already employed / in school) get an extra reward. However, for the true “starving developer”, I think we can do better for them as a community dependent on them if we help them find a more stable opportunity.

    1. totally agree- this feels a bit of a bandaid, thus my point about healthcare. but trying to establish new models makes sense.

      mike- not every project has an obvious commercial return, and so home for the project. agree with much of what you say – but “get a job that will look after you and your project” seems a somewhat sub optimal answer.

  2. I’ve worked with large organisations keen to contribute and support open-source, but when it comes down to it their finance/accounting depts only understand paying for licenses or consulting services. They simply can’t account for crowd-funding or patreon type sponsorship. In one specific case the manager ended up procuring licenses of a commercial product provided by the open source developer, not to use but just as a way to make the contribution and support software that the organisation benefited hugely from. I’ve helped orchestrate a few hacks of this nature but ideally needs a better long term solution.

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