Crowdfunding is against the point of open source

Crowdfunding has expanded in recent years to scales unimagined before. Recently Kickstarter – currently the largest crowd-sourcing platform, announced that over 5.7 million people have pledged North of 1 Billion US Dollars to campaigns promoted via the website.

Although the success stories of projects realised via the collective effort of the crowd have altered several industries, particularly game development and publishing, crowdfunding has arguably reached a saturation point, where the bars have been raised so high and competition has become so fierce, that chances for success of smaller projects are falling by the hour.

One field that is enjoying increasing attention in the crowdfunding world is the production of open source software and hardware. At first glance the two seem like a perfect match, after all crowd-sourcing originated as a way for creators to gather the required resources for projects that would benefit communities they were part of. However, with the rising of campaign targets and project quality, the altruistic side of crowd-funded open source development is giving way to the business models governing the field. Creators are investing increasing amounts in advertising and other side-costs, while ‘open source’ is becoming nothing more than a buzzword for attracting a specific target audience and selling it a plain old consumer product.

The decay of truly independent small-scale campaigns

Changing  standards

Take a quick glimpse at Kickstarter’s homepage and you will notice immediately the beautiful photos and cover arts of the featured campaigns – the top crowdfunding efforts handpicked by the website’s staff. Projects that have often taken months to envision and plan, crafted with attention by professionals and properly backed-up by extensive research.

Now compare this to what Linus Torvalds shares to his fellow Usenet users prior to releasing the source-code of Linux – probably the most famous open source software today:

“I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.

… It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.”

—Linus Torvalds

One of the core values of open source appears extinct on the front-page of Kickstarter – the joy of the discovery and creation of an elegant solution with no other incentive than satisfying your curiosity or reacting to the frustration created by some exiting product.

Hidden costs

At the Wikipedia article about crowdfunding there is not a single mention of the word ‘costs’ or any explanation of the potential overheads in creating a successfully funded campaign.

My recent experience in helping one of my friends in creating his Kickstarter campaign that, at the time of writing, is halfway through its 30 days of funding, shows that 5 months of careful engineering and considerable investments, 2 days of video shooting with an expensive DSLR camera and numerous revisions of campaign marketing material may not be quite enough to make it. He decided recently to invest further in advertising, as none of the technology blogs he had contacted were willing to publish the news about his gadget before accepting a generous fee for the service.

Not to mention the 10% subtracted from the total earnings in order to aid the noble cause undertaken by Kickstarter’s staff.

To put this in an easier to understand form for computer scientists:

Crowdfunding == Business;

Surprisingly low success rates

Last but not least, let’s consider the entrance barrier for the club of the successfully backed crowdfuned projects. This sutdy on the topic states that three quarters of the gaming crowdfunding campaigns fail to meet their backing target, while recently just 7.5% percent of open source projects have been successful.

Last time I checked the success rate of my GitHub open source projects, it was close to 100% with the staggering number of active contributors of 1. A humble victory, but a victory anyway, compared to a dead Kickstarter project.

The problem with large crowdfunding initiatives

Ghost Blogging

Ghost is a NodeJs based blogging platform envisioned by John O’Nolan, a former WordPress (a.k.a. the open source blogging platform) developer, that aims to get blog writing back to its basics –  that is: beautiful typefaces, contemporary design and Markdown editors.

Naturally the platform is intended for the free speakers by being completely open source, with the tiny note that the backers’ funds contribute towards a hosted service that will provide Ghost in all of its beauty for a tiny annual fee alongside the development of the open source project.

In my humble opinion – this is called business, not open-sourcing.

Fast-forward 9 months after the successful funding of Ghost Blogging, exceeding the target by nearly 800% and the HEAD branch of the GitHub repository of ghost has version 0.4.

Fast-forward 9 months after the successful funding of Ghost Blogging, exceeding the target by nearly 800% and the HEAD branch of the GitHub repository of ghost has version 0.4.

During a recent attempt to develop a simple Ghost theme that separates blog posts based on their tag (no categories as of yet) in two content pages: posts and gallery, I discovered that the Handlebars template engine behind Ghost supports only built-in functions such as post.title() and post.content(). In other words the simplest possible extension of the system would require changes in core and trashing simple upgradeability of my web site forever.

In the meantime John O’Nollan’s team has been busy rebranding the Ghost Platform-as-a-Service and advertising it’s growing features.

As I may have previously mentioned:

Crowdfunding == Business;


Since at this point one could easily accuse me of ranting against the single black sheep of the flock, let me tell you the similar story of a hardware open source project I recently backed and received in my mailbox a month ago – Digix – “The ultimate 100% Arduino Due compatible dev board with Wifi and Mesh networking, Audio, USB OTG, microSD, and 99 i/o pins!“ Did I mention that “[t]he DigiX – like everything we produce at Digistump, is Open Source Hardware.”?

My initial excitement after unpacking the beautiful piece of hardware and plugging it in my PC was quickly suppressed after discovering how poor the documentation for the device was. I quickly realised I was sold a fairly expensive device that was advertised as the better alternative to the widely popular Arduino which – you guessed it right, is properly open source and funded by the sales of a truly original hardware platform that has been tested and improved by many and has proven itself as an excellent product worth its price. Yet my new toy was no match to Arduino in terms of support, documentation, lack of bugs and active development effort.

Alternative? (for a lack of better conclusion)

At this point you might be wondering whether I am not defending the view that developers of open source hardware and software don’t deserve to be awarded for their hard work. Or perhaps I dream of some romantic ideal of open source, where every effort is fully rewarded by simply earning the community’s recognition and respect.

This is certainly not the case when we talk about genuinely innovative initiatives that have expanded to become commercial products, but in their core continue to support the independent creators on budget by giving full power without hidden costs.

I believe that the preceding chapters have made my point about the difference between those and crowdfunded projects quite clear.