Free culture projects need a ubiquitous funding system

Posted: 2010-06-04

The free culture movement, which is of a whole with the free software movement, has made a lot of great progress but is still struggling to prove itself to be economically viable in the mainstream. I might even go so far as to say that a lack of a better funding system is the single biggest thing holding back many existing and many more prospective free culture projects. Imagine if Add/Remove Applications and the Ubuntu Software Center prompted downloaders with a "Donate" button that enabled users to easily support projects. Imagine if last— ahem— displayed the same button for artists. Imagine if the idea of giving in order to support the production of work you appreciate went from public appeal to the public's expectation.

Currently the Software Freedom Conservancy exists as a fiscal sponsor for free software projects which "provides member projects with free financial and administrative services, but does not involve itself with technological and artistic decisions." In short, member projects get the protections of a corporate entity without actually having to form and maintain one.

By joining the Conservancy, member FOSS projects obtain the benefits of a formal legal structure while keeping themselves focused on software development. These benefits include, most notably, the ability to collect earmarked project donations and protection from personal liability for the developers of the project. Another benefit of joining the Conservancy is that projects can use it to hold assets, which are managed by the Conservancy on behalf of and at the direction of the project. The Conservancy is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, so member projects can receive tax-deductible donations to the extent allowed by law. 
The grander vision that is needed for free culture would require the infrastructure to scale plus provide more features. The primary motivation for this system would be more broad: to support free culture by providing free financial and administrative services to projects. This pay-what-you-want app store of sorts would differ from what the Software Freedom Conservancy offers in two ways.

Firstly, it would not be exclusive to software, but any free cultural works. It might even make sense to welcome non free culture projects to join, but perhaps only provide full benefits to verified free culture projects. For example, donations to non free culture projects may not be tax deductible, and/or a 10% fee on donations could apply to donations towards unverified projects while verified and approved free culture projects receive the full benefits of the program for free. Then again, an approval system might be hard to scale, and this being a funding system project, it could of course be used to fund itself.

Secondly, and this is the ambitious part, the platform would need to make the process streamlined so that any project could join. It should be developed as a free and, if possible, federated service. This service should allow projects to collect donations through a variety of means. Projects should be able to display buttons or widgets on their own website, and it should be possible, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, for desktop applications like Add/Remove Applications and the Ubuntu Software Center to display "donate" buttons. Beyond basic one-time donation functionality, support could also be added for fundraising campaigns with a set goal (think Kickstarter) and repeating contributions for subscriptions.

If such a system were in place which provided programmers, writers, and artists a platform to easily accept donations directly from their followers, free culture projects will be able to expand and prove viable on a much, much larger scale. So, who do you think has the resources for such a project? Which organizations would be interested in contributing? We need this yesterday, so let's get started.

In related news, the reason i was compelled to finally write up this post, is because i recently received my first donation to this blog! It was a nice token of appreciation from Ketil Nordstad, so thank you and thanks to any future donors i may have. I added the Google Checkout widget without displaying it prominently just as an experiment to see if anything would happen. Now that something has happened and i am more determined to prove that people will want to contribute to works they appreciate, i am taking the idea more seriously. I have added Paypal buttons as well, one of which enables subscriptions (repeated donations), but sadly doens't support pay-what-you-want. There are also Flattr buttons on all of my posts, but i can't throw 100% support behind it because it's a non-free service. Still it's very useful, and i'm happy to see someone trying to shake up the market. I have three free Flattr invitation codes for whoever wants them, but be aware that you can't use it unless you put at least €2 ($2.46) in your account each month which will be distributed evenly to the things you "flattr". Please do not use these invites unless you are ready to spend money!

Three free Flattr invites:
  • 36c9206e7cfba696b
  • b9775863e193437a8
  • 824ce1901ba161593