Funding Open Source Software as a Third Party?

In a Discord chat, we’ve recently talked about how well funding for Blender turned out. At the time of writing, they get $137k per month for development. I cannot say if that’s enough or too little. But it’s not nothing.

Being crowd-funded comes with its perils. Especially with free open-source software like Blender, developers tell that it’s not easy to know which user base to focus on, which UI/UX compromises to make, and how to figure out if the project backers are satisfied with the result.

It’s not trivial when you sell apps, either, but there you at least do know which people to listen to if in doubt: your loyal customers.

We wondered how hard it’d be to set up a successful funding pool for other projects, like Emacs. There’s no clear goal, but there’s a ton of bugs to fix and things to maintain, and a couple extra dollars don’t hurt to make it possible to put in more work and at the same time not starve.

Management of expectations, direction of funds, singling out of developers to support – all that would be extra effort. While there’s a FSF fund, there’s no fund that directs your money towards Emacs development. It could go anywhere, split in many ways. So even the money transfer, which is the easiest part, is not simple in this case. It doesn’t suffice to collect money in a pool and then forward the funds to the FSF. (This set-up is also the prime motivation to even talk about crowd-funding Emacs development: because you can’t already do it properly.)

Now making the money available to the software maintainers requires a platform to manage these people. That’s an extra step that sucks. As if raising funds wouldn’t be hard enough already.

Managing people is not a trivial task, either. What if some Emacs user has enough of the daily shortcomings of the editor, whips up a couple of work-in-progress improvements, but is totally new to the scene? How do you compensate these kinds of efforts? They’re not part of the ‘accepted developer pool’, so they won’t get a share of the funds. Do you even want to compensate contributors that way? Would it turn the FOSS spirit on its head and shift the focus from “how can I make this project better” to “how can I make money from this”?

In the end, I’d imagine that managing expectations of backers would be the easiest part, combined with setting up a way to collect and then forward the money. – Legal implications might prove me wrong quickly. Maybe you need a pro-bono organization as a legal entity to manage and forwards funds correctly. More overhead. But customer expectations could be managed by making clear from the get-go that the pool of funds is not a custom order form for your favorite Emacs feature.

Here’s what I imagine: Backers can leave a vote and tell devs what they are most interested in. But this is not a promise by the devs. It’s a mutual “feeling out”. A telling of needs and wants. It’s by no means intended to bind devs (legally, morally, or otherwise) to implement that stuff. In the spirit of patronage, devs shall receive money and do good deeds and improve the software, but not be forced to fulfill someone else’s wishes. Might even be worth keeping the developers secret to avoid their getting bugged by angry backers.

Is the best case scenario then that this fund attracts hundreds of thousands of dollars per month? Would this create a political problem because now there’s a well-funded “power” that wants to have a say in the development of Emacs, and would there be conflict with the vision of the FSF, and veteran pro-bono Emacs maintainers? I’d be surprised if there would not be any trouble.

So funding open source projects like Emacs as a 3rd party is not an easy task. It’s simple to set up, but it’s by no means a smooth ride to make it work.

The best thing that could happen is if the FSF offered a way to directly fund Emacs development. But that only means the FSF would have to figure out how to split the funds among developers. And their problem would be that there already are a lot of active developers known to the FSF, so this would have to be figured out from the start for everyone involved, lest they create a caste system of paid and unpaid devs. It might be easier when there’s “a lot” of monthly funds to share. But if you only have a single slice of pizza, how many more ways can you cut it before you might as well not bother trying?