Is "Sponsorware" the answer for more sustainable OSS?

While reading the latest issue of cron.weekly this morning I came across Sponsorware. In his blog post “Introducing Sponsorware: How A Small Open Source Package Increased My Salary By $11k in Two Days” Caleb explains his journey coming up with this concept, which was like this:

  • he had an idea on how to solve a specific problem
  • he built a proof of concept for it and shared it online
  • he received positive feedback asking him to share the code or publish his software

This got him thinking. Already busy earning his living with open-source software, should he just push it to e.g. Github and commit to maintaining it for free? Or should he just sell it as closed source, which would limit its reach and usefulness for others? While talking about this dilemma in the No Plans to Merge podcast the idea of the sponsorware model was born.

What is sponsorware?

The idea is simple. The project gets an open-source license, but is not being made publicly available immediately. Instead access is only granted to a selected audience, with the promise to grant free access to everyone once a certain goal is reached.

This goal could be the number of “supporters” on services like Github Sponsors or Open Collective or a monthly revenue threshold. The way Caleb is handling this is that he has different sponsor levels that progressively include more visibility of individual supporters and more direct contact with him.

In a way it is similar to how the tool imapsync is licensed/commercialized. You can buy the software and packages of support on its website, but its extremely permissive license is allowing re-upload of the sources and therefore free usage for others.

How is this more sustainable? (And what does sustainable mean?)

Earlier this year I wanted to attend the SustainSummit, working with open-source for more than ten years I am very sensitive towards the challenges this environment can pose. These challenges can also be found in the economic model “Tragedy of the commons”. Basically following this model open-source software and the people maintaining it are the shared resource. The economic model explains that individual users will always act according to their own personal interest, when deciding if and how they contribute to the continued presence of a given shared resource (OSS). The “tragedy” is now that users can deplete a resource by taking from it, but not giving (enough or at all) back.

Which brings us to a key value to keep producers on board: sustainability. Producing needs to be both sustainable on an organizational level, which means no unnecessary technical or organizational debt (processes, costs for participation like hosting) and it also needs to be sustainable on a personal level. The latter is important so that producers have enough motivation and capacity to continue producing.

But how?

Starting first with a tightly knit audience of “supporters” can counteract the “tragedy of the commons”, since all users are known and their participation and contribution are transparent to each other. Having a smaller audience also means for the producer that he can better approach and understand his users. Which in turn improves quality of the resource.

By the time the project is publicly available it has hopefully reached enough momentum, that even after this moment the amount of supporters will still continue to grow. Giving the producer enough room for continued production of open-source software.

Where does it fall short?

Unfortunately the sponsorware model is not a one size fits all type of solution. After all, to find individuals and companies willing to support a producer, the producer and his work already need to be known or at least easily discoverable. In a similar way this model favours individual producers, or ones who are just starting out, since established companies have higher operating costs that need to be met before such a business model would make sense economically.

But all in all, I think this is a promising model and one I will keep in mind when it comes to choosing a government model for new projects.

Do you want to discuss sponsorware or have additional insights you want to share? Send me a mail and I’ll update this post with your reactions.