In this episode of To Be Continuous, Edith and Paul are joined by Sean Byrnes, CEO of Outlier.ai, and Nadia Eghbal. The group discusses open-source economics and examines several potential evolutions of adding money to the open-source equation.
Edith: So, Nadia what do you like best about open source?
Nadia: I like that open source is where I feel I spend time with a lot of creative people. It’s sort of like creative talent at its best. And it feeds directly back into the rest of startups and technology and everything else that I love.
But it seems like everything starts with open source. Which makes it really magical.
Edith: So Sean, what do you like best about open source?
Sean: It’s the community. I enjoy learning from other people. I enjoy being able to find people I would never connect with that I have interests in common with. And a community that helps, because I consider open source to extend beyond just writing lines of code to sharing ideas, and sharing concepts and sharing solutions to problems, and while I might not always use those same solutions, I’m always inspired for new ways to solve other problems.
Paul: So that’s super interesting, because nobody said that they like how it supports their Silicon Valley startup through sharecropping. Or … nobody said, I like how I get paid to work.
Edith: Well, Paul, that comes later in the episode, but this would be a great time for our guests to introduce themselves.
Nadia: I’m Nadia Eghbal. I’ve been writing recently and thinking a lot about how to support open source infrastructure.
Originally, I have background in nonprofits and impact investing and working with foundations but most recently I was a founder of a startup and then I went into venture capital. And have sort of seen the system from all different sides and would love to marry together all those different interests and topics in which seems to happen in open source.
Sean: Hey, I’m Sean Byrnes. I’ve been writing software most of my life. I’ve also been a founder of companies and an investor. I would not consider myself an expert on open source and I don’t wanna claim that pedestal but I have, am, the maintainer of some open source libraries which seem to be pretty popular and I have contributed to others and I think that I’ve been lucky enough to know a lot of open source developers in my life which is, by no means, a majority of them but enough that I feel part of the community, at least.
Paul: So, one of the topics that we were discussing just before the show started, is this idea of how open source developers get paid. Or, if open source developers should get paid.
Nadia, sounds like you’ve been talking about this for a while or thinking about this for a while. Can you kick us off?
Nadia: Yeah, actually, have a new thought on this topic from Michael Rogers whose, who runs Node.js Foundation. And he said recently, I think, on the last post I had written that everybody gets paid for open source. And I think that’s a really great way to start thinking about it vs. saying that nobody gets paid. Because in the end we’re contributing time to open source, right and in the end, somebody is paying you to have the time to work on open source.
Whether it’s your employer and then you can work on open source full-time at your job. Or you’re full-time employed and that gives you the bandwidth to be able to work on open source on the weekends or whatever.
So when I think about paying people to work on open source, I think people sort of like, bristle at the idea because they think that money is not involved in open source at all. And what I really liked about Michael’s point is that, in the end, money is actually really closely tied to open source and we’re just not talking about it.
Sean: I get it. It’s interesting because my point of view is that it’s actually more nuanced, I agree with you 100 percent but I think that it’s very nuanced and that a lot of people do get paid for open source, it’s not even that we aspire to wanting them to get paid, right. ‘Cause there’s lots of kinds of open source. It’s funny ’cause on Medium, Nadia and I had an exchange.
I kind of quantified it into the four categories of open source the way I see them. Which is by no means the universal standard but at least, how I see the world there, there are places where open source is part of your, a corporate product. It’s part of a whole.
Like, LaunchDarkly. Edith’s company, has open source SDKs. It’s not because they’re doing anything grand, it reduced their sales friction if their customers can see the code before they integrate it into their app, right. So that’s one kind of open source.
A second is what I call corporate open source, where there’s an open source project but there’s a company that sells services and products and stuff around it, right. So Confluence does that for Kafka. And Databricks does that for Spark. And MySQL was, I think, one of the first companies to really make a good model out of it. Red Hat, you could argue, had mixed success but that’s another kind where there’s a company whose corporate goal and sales is towards this project.
There’s the third kind which I call, kinda like corporate marketing, which is you take a project out of a company and you roll it out like LinkedIn did with Kafka, where they’re actually, the company’s maintaining it they just make it available. So Google, the Angular and Facebook work react. And again there, I think, that it’s. You could argue why companies do this, some of ’em do it for recruiting, some of ’em do it for marketing. Some of ’em do it for because they’re very nice people.
I think that the fourth category is where it’s a little bit weirder, where it’s like, what I call the community where somebody started a project. Maybe it’s an individual, maybe a few people, to solve a problem. And a lot of the most important open source products today started that way. Even Linux started that way, right. And it grew, and it got bigger, and eventually, then it became unclear because other people were using that project to build other companies and build other products, and make more money.
And I think in that fourth category is where I think it’s less, because the first three categories is usually pretty clear who’s getting paid to do what and where the money’s coming from, but in the fourth category it gets very muddied and very quickly. Because if I start something, and the metaphor I like to use is, the open source library that I wrote was something called Likely.js which is a recommend ender system for no JS where you can, like Amazon product recommendations. And I know that there are people in the world that are using that as part of companies. And those companies are obviously making money because it to recommend products, right. And so, the question is, you know, so in that world, do they owe me anything for creating that which is underlying their products? And then, in turn, what do I owe the projects that I build Likely on top of? And then where does the flow of economics in that world go?
Paul: So I have an interesting view on that. Years ago, I got involved in this project called PHC, which is a compiler for PHP. And there was a couple of guys who had start this and I joined a year later. And when they started it, they made it GPL. When I joined, I argued, we should change from being GPL to BSD because if someone comes along and uses that technology to build something that’s cool, I would rather that happen than not now happen and it might be that if was GPL that it wouldn’t happen. And so that, essentially, in sort of the kinda related to Likely.js you decided by the license.
Whether or not you were going to make it publicly available or if you didn’t want people to build business on it, you could’ve made it GPL or AGPL or something along those lines and you could’ve restricted it in any way that you wanted and you chose not to. And there’s something implicit in that, that communicates to people who are building their companies on it, etc., as to what your intent was.
Sean: No, that’s true. Although there’s a nuance in there which is that, even the GPL suffers from this, what Richard Solomon still complains about today which is, you could still use Likely.js on a server.
Paul: Right, right, right. Well, so AGPL would work around that.
Sean: Sure, and there’s other licenses that I could choose, but the majority of licenses out there today but even then, let me argue counter side, not because I agree with it just because, hey, let’s argue because—why not! You know, as an individual developer, I don’t have the time resources to go pursue people. I’m not gonna go sue somebody. Really? No, come on, like it’s not gonna happen. So, I think, you’re right only in the act of releasing it as open source on GitHub. I was making a decision that it’s possible for people to use this in ways that may, either A, I don’t intend, they could’ve used on Silk Road to recommend drugs for all I know, seriously, right.
Or, to make money on it in ways that I am not gonna benefit from. And I made that decision knowing full well the impact of that. And I would actually argue most developers do that. The question is whether or not there’s remorse later on when it turns out, wait, I really wish I hadn’t made that decision, I can go back in time.
Paul: Well, I think this is a common thing that people create a thing and then they say, well, if this is popular, I could sort of keep it or I could, there’s value here. I could keep it to myself or I could keep the value to myself. Or try to profit from it in some way. But they make, what is essentially, a marketing decision. I’m just gonna release this, I’m gonna see what happens to it. I’m gonna see if it spreads and then if it spreads, I can then make a decision as to, as to what, how possibly I can make money out of this. Or I can get value out of this. But at that point, obviously, the cat is out of the bag in terms of people actually using the software.
Nadia: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s actually should start from the principle, like you said, of it’s really great when people, you give something away and then people can use for whatever they want. Whether it’s for a hobby project. Whether it’s for illegal drugs or whatever, you know. Businesses, whatever, that’s like, kinda one of the coolest things about open source is that you can use it for whatever you want and that’s kinda what you signed up for right.
If you didn’t wanna do that, then don’t license it that way. I don’t know, I wouldn’t frame, at least the problems that I’m seeing and that I’m interested in, is not really about seller’s remorse, I guess of, “Oh, I made this thing and now it’s really popular and how can I make money off of it.”
But I think it’s more really about investing back into the infrastructure that we’re all using and that requires some sort of maintenance and upkeep. And that’s why I like the term infrastructure and I’m trying to use it in that sense of things that don’t have a business model or business attached to it. Like you, literally, could not charge for Python. It’s just not gonna happen. Or the packaging associated with it or whatever, but still like millions of people are using it. It’s touched billions of people. And you literally have like one person working on a library or a project, that doesn’t seem, that seems like it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that it works properly.
Edith: Well I think Nadia made a really good point that a lot of the fun of creation is the creation. And the hard work is all the maintenance and the support and the documentation after. So like, Sean, you basically got the fun.
Sean: Oh, totally. Well I mean, if you even think back to the original “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” essay from years ago, that was one of the fundamental topics of, you know Eric was inheriting, I think it was called Pop Mail from somebody else.
He had gotten tired of maintaining it and so he wanted somebody to take it over and he found Eric and Eric took it over. I mean, that’s, you know, I think, yes, as engineers we like creating and we like creating things in our free time and we don’t like maintaining them as much and maintenance feels more like work.
And so, I agree with Nadia’s point that if everybody is driving economic value from it somebody has to be willing to step forward to support it. I think the problem is that I also, it’s funny that you have a background in nonprofits because I also have worked for nonprofits and I see the similar lament in nonprofit companies.
Which is that—not nonprofit companies, nonprofit organizations, where the person who starts it usually really wants to solve this problem, they’re usually really good at that. They’re not good at the fundraising
And in this case, the nonprofits, it’s like raising grant money or getting donations. But they have a good mission and they have a good organization to go do it. And they have this lament which is why can they not get more support to solve the problem they see in the way that they wanna solve it.
And I see the same around maintainers of open source projects and I think the challenge is going to be that I wonder if it is even possible for the general economy to support them, to do what they wanna do, the way they wanna do it. Or if they are gonna have to start doing it the way the general—
Paul: Right, because they have other options. They could start a consulting company. Get hired by a category two company or something like that. To build around it and support themselves that way and then their job doesn’t, then their job isn’t what they wanted their job to be which is making cool software. Their job is, you know, doing maintenance contracts for a big soul-less enterprise.
Edith: You say that like it’s, I mean, soul-less enterprises, I mean …
Paul: I’m a big fan of soul-less enterprises. But I’m just looking to sort of put the—
Sean: They have a lot of money. We have to sell them.
Paul: And if any soul-less enterprise would like to buy CircleCI they should contact me for enterprise pricing.
Sean: Just mention the code OSS for 10 percent more.
Edith: And by the way, thank you for wearing your LaunchDarkly t-shirt today, Paul.
Paul: Always. So, Nadia and Sean had this conversation on Twitter a week ago which led to them being on the show. And one of the Tweets that got involved was from a Jacobian who’s one of the senior Python kind of people. And what he said is, OSS developers deserve to be paid. SV, Silicon Valley, has made massive profits by exploiting free labor. This needs to end.
And I think that there is this, this feeling in open source by, at least by a lot of people who end up on the maintenance side of things that, there is a sort of a sharecropping going on here. And that’s something needs to happen about that.
Edith: I think Nadia actually put this extremely well in the essay; like cool, I wish I had written that essay, it was brilliant.
Edith: But just like, what’s really fed this is the explosion of GitHub and it’s really easy now to start an open source project.
Nadia: Yeah, I feel like right now is just a time when we’re so used to thinking of open source in a certain way and things have kind of gone along as they have for so long that we haven’t necessarily noticed or taken a step back that the past five years look completely different than the past 30 years. And stuff is just not the same anymore. And in part, I think it should be framed as a really good thing because it means that open source kind of won, in a way.
Companies want things to be open source. They wanna learn how to open source their own projects. They wanna understand the whole thing. Everybody is defaulting to open source and that’s a really positive thing and the question is more of, not like, oh, we’re exploiting people and that really sucks but how can we help support that underlying layer that has helped make everything so great. It obviously needs some sort of reinvestment back into it.
Edith: Yeah, I mean, one of the most fascinating thing about “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which was written 30 years ago, is that they referred to Linus Torvalds as this charming guy. Yeah, I know, and you’re like wow, here’s this charming, personable guy who like persuaded people through sheer force of will to work on his project.
Edith: I mean, to go back to Sean’s example about a nonprofit and everybody in the studio right now is like, whoa, that’s not …
Nadia: Not at all.
Edith: By anybody’s perception now, and I don’t know whether that’s just the grind down of having to keep maintaining a project or …
Sean: First, I’d like to thank, I don’t know if his name is actually Jacobian, whatever it is, thank him for his service and work on Python ’cause I think, no matter what we agree on here, we can all agree that the people doing this are doing a service for the general community.
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