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>> law, technology, and the space between

All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your lawyer.

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MicroHub Sponsorplaceone software store, many corporate faces

Coders of the ’90s and 2000s brought software distribution and development online. Open source gave them a story, jargon, heroes, allies, and enemies—a way to see the software world. They became a kind of movement, and that movement won recognition. But they left money to industry and the academy. They made their payoffs and funded their projects in meatspace, when they needed money at all.

The early Web did not do payments. It barely did access control. Naturally, the ideology that evolved with it, freedom of information, made gating access or permission taboo. Gating meant preventing copies, taking money, or both. Either was awkward or impossible in practice. Popular theory made them unnecessary or undesirable.

Even with eBay, Amazon, PayPal, and Transport Layer Security in the later 1990s, it took years for Americans to trust the Net with their money. Meanwhile, open source, like the Web that grew up with it, moved furthest and spread fastest by leveraging what had already shipped. This was the land-grab stage, for installed base and for mindshare. Feature fights came later.

We’re there now. Today’s Internet people grow up on a more complete Web. It does a lot more, for a whole lot more people, across a whole lot more countries. The electronic frontier has been civilized, such as that goes. Locked doors and price tags are as common online as in real life.

It’s not just ads, like in the good old days. Networks became platforms. Platforms become marketplaces. If you make digital stuff on the Internet today, chances are good your distributor also wants to be your payment processor. They pave a path to going pro. They facilitate segmenting your free from your premium, the former growing their platform, the latter paying a cut. They offer tools, sometimes as simple as toggle switches, to “monetize” one segment or all.

Then there’s software. The paved path for public software is an off-ramp: go make money doing something, literally anything, but charging for it. That which is public must remain open, and that which is open must remain pure. Such was the faith of our Internet forefathers.

Software components for older industries, like entertainment or manufacturing, don’t persist this exceptionalism. Nor, of course, do most complete apps. They had pre-Internet histories, and remember them. So outside open source, there’s often not just a market but competing software marketplaces, angling to bring in more buyers and showcase more success and sell Horatio Alger stories. The less advantaged a seller, the more appealing their rise, and to more potential sellers.

The realities underlying all this slowly encroach on open source. Methodically.

GitHub launched a software marketplace five whole years ago…for GitHub integrations. A month later, they hosted the first Sustain, a kind of support group for maintainer types. After two years, joining the Borg, and another Sustain, they didn’t open Marketplace to the rest of software on GitHub. They first-partied donation, then literally threw free money at it, to close the Patreon-Open Collective gap.

For what GitHub does, there’s a market. For what we do on GitHub, a tip jar.

Donations, in a word, are weak. They excel in just one way: offending almost no one. As long as you don’t beg too often. As long as you don’t beg too loud.

GitHub does donation as a button with a heart on it. The button resides in a sidebar, often below the fold. The button is gray. Theme gray. Very weak. Very safe.

Even with optimized appeals and big, shiny “calls to action”, tips brings less than payments for good or service. So it takes a bigger audience to yield meaningful cash. Fewer people do. This is a problem when competing as a platform means showcasing success.

Owning distribution, GitHub can scout the field and mint celebrities. Celebrity boosts audience, which helps low-yield donations add up. Of course, successful celebrities also reflect back on the platform. The right choice of stars and starlets can shine up GitHub’s image. But there can only be so many notables. If everyone’s famous, even just coder-famous, then no one is.

Like the patronage platforms it aped, GitHub Sponsors quietly morphs into a market. The lead offering is ads—the go-to monetize model for the free end of freemium—in the form of logo placements. Largely in README and on Pages sites, where they tend less to offend.

But wherever perks of sponsorship cross open expectations—access to code, availability of support, roadmap steering—they’re hidden from view. Paid private repos. Members-only forums. You might use GitHub daily and not have noticed these exist. They are private, after all. There isn’t just public GitHub and private GitHub. There are paid gates between them, dubbed “sponsorship”, but in many cases actually based on direct exchange.

Microsoft paid $7.5 billion for the hub of public software distribution and development. They want to be the payment rail of public software, too. But money for the kind of software public GitHub hosts remains stubbornly taboo, or at least controversial. What’s a platform preaching open source to do? Integrate with the Microsoft Store?

It’s already happening. LibreOffice is for sale, for example, proceeds to The Document Foundation. Net of Redmond’s cut, I presume.

There has also been a related kerfuffle. Enterprising nobodies were offering open source for sale on their app store for Windows users. Microsoft became alarmed and overreacted, banning all sales of open source. Cue predictable outcry from stewards and developers actually using this to make money for their projects. Call them “sales”, but wasn’t this mostly “sponsorship”? How much are people paying for the convenience of one-click installation, and how much in support? Does anyone really want an accounting?

I have grave concerns about the dominance of GitHub under Microsoft. But I’m not sure any of the above, or its predictable convergence, counts as bad news. At least not yet. Nature abhors hard, sharp categories. The lines between and around public and private, open and closed, business and community have always been mostly made up, sharpened mostly by out penchant to engage with the world as we prefer to see it. In reality, more monetization methods help more projects to thrive and more developers achieve independence.

Getting those methods implemented is good for software. Getting them socialized even moreso. Nobody’s better positioned to socialize developers right now than Microsoft. But nobody’s better positioned to bind them up, either.

The most obvious hook, to my eye, is the payment network. If every company’s set up to pay for GitHub, and every developer’s set up for Sponsors or Marketplace, then the network effect could be a lot like AWS. One side’s already set up to buy. One side’s already set up to sell. Big convenience benefit not to go through anyone else. Heck, companies could end up doing dev payroll through GitHub.

I’ll also be keeping an eye out for administrative moves. Microsoft already manages installation and update of open apps through the Microsoft Store. Memories of Windows Installer over InstallShield and WISE coming back. Couple that with a Tidelift-style usage tracker spanning language environments—for servers, workstations, and perhaps even mobile—and you’ve integrated a whole industry. So if I had to bet on an SBOMs winner, it would probably be Microsoft. But there might not be any SBOMs actually involved.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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