The acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus VR by Facebook was announced this week to mixed reactions. Most negative were those who had enabled the Rift VR goggles to be created in the first place — the backers on Kickstarter who provided nearly $2.5m to see the dream become reality. One prominent backer, the founder of Minecraft creators Mojang, was especially upset, deciding that Minecraft will not collaborate with Facebook. In a blog post he wrote:
I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.
Except that’s exactly what he did. When we use crowdfunding to create new ideas, we are providing entrepreneurs with low-risk, low-cost seed funding for their new business. Buying in to crowdfunding at sites like Kickstarter or IndiGogo is almost explicitly an encouragement to go bootstrap a valuable business with seed money that doesn’t create any responsibilities towards the funder beyond delivering some toys. It’s best to expect the ultimate buyer to be one you don’t like.
Don’t get me wrong. No-strings-attached crowdfunding is a great way to make new things happen. But we should engage in it with great care. New copyrights and patents are likely to be created from what we fund. If we want that innovation to enrich society rather than just entrepreneurs, we should make sure the work that’s being created is destined to become open source software and open hardware. Both of those come with guarantees that the work being created will be made available to all on completion.
This is especially relevant to software. When we forget to provide software freedom, a collaborative project becomes just another crowdsourced project. This isn’t just a matter of philosophy — it affects the degree and quality of collaboration too. A crowdfunded project will have to be created and maintained solely by the recipient of the funds, even if they claim to be creating an “open community”. Open source is unlocked by the equality of all participants in a given community. When that equality is constrained, the network effect that delivers the benefits the initiator is seeking will be inhibited.
Consequently, it’s really important to ensure those expecting network effects realise software freedom is fundamental to success and avoid thinking it’s the same thing as “crowdsourcing”, which is inherently different. Whether an activity is crowdfunded or crowdsourced, it’s crucial to ask who will own and control the deliverables. Crowdfunded means you have no stake, and crowdsourced means you have no share. Only sign up if that’s what you want.