Chapter 2. Sidebars
In the previous chapter, I examined my toolbox for building on-line communities. Now I'll look at few other key ideas that are worth knowing about.
The Market Curve
The market curve is a well-known theory of marketing that is less known in engineering and community building. However it's important to understanding how communities develop over time. In the classic market curve, a new technology, idea, or product enters the market as a wave, starting with ice-breaking enthusiasts and pioneers, then the early adopters, then the mass market, then the late adopters, and finally the skeptics.
Each of these groups has different motivations for coming to a project, joining in, and eventually, leaving. If we take an exciting new technology like ZeroMQ, we can explore this and understand how it works:
When the project is young and experimental, it attracts pundits and researchers whose business is new stuff, in general. These people need to know why the project is different from what exists, what its goals are, and why it is exciting. They will never use it, nor will they become contributors. They are your evangelists. They often lose interest rapidly.
When you have a seed product, it attracts pioneers. These are hard-core hackers who want the latest stuff and don't care about documentation, marketing, or tutorials. They're very good at managing the risk of new things. These are your first wave of contributors. Often they are building frameworks for other developers.
When you have a real, usable product, it attracts early adopters. These are people making real products yet who are good at taking and managing risk. They still don't need much help, though they do expect some guarantee that things won't break randomly. This is the bulk of your community.
When you are in version two or three, you will start to attract the mass market. These are people who expect stability and reliability. They'll ask questions like, "Do you offer support?" Some of these will become contributors. Mostly, however, they are the target paying customers.
Finally, when you are in later versions, the laggards and skeptics will finally pick up older versions and try them.
It's more complex than this, as you can have multiple overlapping curves. You need to keep the whole market interested, or you lose valuable sections of your community. Each section sells to the next, so you should aim new versions at the evangelists so they can sell them to the pioneers, and so on.
Once you understand the market curve, you see why it's counterproductive to, for instance, write perfect tutorials for the early versions. You won't get the mass market regardless and it will feel patronizing to the pioneers.
I've emphasized the value of volunteer work as being more accurate, honest, and creative than paid work. There's a strong caveat here. Some of the Social Architecture tools can be dangerous. When you define a compelling mission, you can motivate people close to self-destruction. This was a major problem in the FFII before I took over, made worse by the highly emotional and tribal culture of the organization at that time. Many core members were in a state of deep exhaustion and burnout. It was familiar to me from my own past.
Research into burnout -- which you can read on Wikipedia -- doesn't seem to match what I've observed in the real world. Data trumps theory, however. Here's what I've seen many times about the specific type of burnout we see in volunteer communities:
It manifests as a deep disgust with a specific project. We push the project aside, stop answering emails, and might even leave the community. Other people observe that "he's acting strange... depressed, or tired..."
It is project-related. That is, we burn out on specific projects and not on others. In severe cases, we become dysfunctional for a few months, then begin working again by abandoning the project and starting something else.
It hits after a period of one to three years, depending on our character and the situation. Very stubborn, driven individuals may take longer to burn out, and when they do, it's worse.
It is curable. This is the weirdest aspect, which I proved by taking burned-out volunteers and finding money to pay them for what they had been doing for free. They came back happily and carried on successfully.
It is preventable. Paid staff don't suffer the same kind of burnout. They can definitely get depressed, yet they don't usually just switch off.
Which leads me to conclude that this is about the economics of professional investment. Here's my hypothesis of the mechanisms at play.
Many people invest heavily in their professions, taking great risks especially while young in the hope of reaping rewards later in life. We're able to postpone material rewards for a long time if we think we're on the right track. For example, a young writer or musician will tolerate being poor for many years if he thinks he's on the path to eventual fame and fortune.
No matter how subtle, the carrot at the end of the stick is always present in our subconscious. We are essentially economic animals. All of life is economic. We can lie to ourselves really well, yet beneath every act and decision is an economic motive. We invest in projects because we feel they will propel us to success, even if it takes years. We compete with others, trying to find niches where our particular talents can shine.
So it happens that the young mind striving to invest in the right places finds itself in a situation where the weight of lies accumulates and reaches a tipping point. The path suddenly proves itself to be a dead end. The people it was following are manipulative liars. The mission was a fraud. The praise of others is emotional blackmail. The years of investment were a waste, and even a further minute would be wasted.
This type of burnout is like a reckoning. We abandon the project as though it were suddenly toxic, with much the same feeling as if we had eaten something spoiled. Here are some ways to reduce the risk of this happening:
We cannot work alone on projects. The concentration of all of the responsibility on one person who does not set limits often leads to burnout.
Projects need a business plan. As long as there is an eventual prospect of economic reward, the mind can survive hard work without material reward for some time.
Preventative education on burnout can help. When we explain to people what burnout is, they recognize it faster and call for help before it is too late.
Good tools and processes let us work with less stress and with less dependence on any one person.
The Myth of Individual Intelligence
You will have gathered by now that I'm not a great fan of the brilliance of individuals. Mostly this is because despite being a Mensa member, I've seen myself make such amazingly clever mistakes. Over time I've come to think that the very notion of individual intelligence is a dangerously simplified myth.
In this myth, brilliant individuals think about important problems, and then by hard work and labor, they create solutions and refine those until they are perfect. Sometimes they will have "eureka" moments where they "get" brilliantly simple answers to large problems. The inventor, and the process of invention are rare, precious, and can command a monopoly. History is full of such heroic individuals. We owe them our modern world.
Look more closely, however, and one discovers that this story does not match the facts. History doesn't show lone inventors. It shows lucky people who steal or claim ownership of ideas that are being worked on by many. It shows brilliant people striking lucky, and then spending decades on fruitless and pointless quests. The best-known large-scale inventors like Thomas Edison were good at systematic broad research done by large teams. It's like claiming that Steve Jobs invented every tool made by Apple. It is a nice myth, good for marketing, and utterly untrue.
Recent history, better recorded and less easy to manipulate, shows this well. The Internet is surely one of the most innovative and fast-moving areas of technology, and one of the best documented. It has no inventor. Instead, it has a massive economy of people who have carefully and progressively solved a long series of immediate problems, documented their answers, and made those available to all.
The innovative nature of the Internet comes not from a small, select band of Einsteins. It comes from RFCs anyone can use and improve, made by hundreds and thousands of smart, though not uniquely smart, individuals. It comes from open source software that anyone can use and improve. It comes from sharing, remixing, and scale of community. It comes from the continuous accretion of good solutions, and the disposal of bad ones.
Here thus is an alternative theory of innovation:
- There is an infinite problem/solution terrain. It is like a landscape of hills and valleys that we are trying to climb. The solutions to interesting problems are at the tops of the hills.
- This terrain changes over time according to external conditions. Mountains can become flat, and new mountains appear, over time.
- We can only accurately perceive problems to which we are close. We do not have very long-range vision, only guesses. Our metaphorical landscape is very misty.
- We can rank the cost/benefit economics of problems using a market for solutions. That is, we can measure how high we are on any given peak.
- There is an optimal solution to any solvable problem. That is, every slope has a top.
- We can approach this optimal solution mechanically, by applying the method of taking a step in some approximately good direction, and seeing whether we are now higher or lower than before.
- Our intelligence can make this process faster, yet does not replace it. Being smarter maybe lets us step faster, or see a little further into the mist, and that's it.
There are a few corollaries to this:
Individual creativity matters less than process. Smarter people may work faster, and they may also work in the wrong direction. It's the collective vision of reality that keeps us honest and relevant.
We don't need road maps if we have a good process. Functionality will emerge and evolve over time as solutions compete for market shares.
We don't invent solutions so much as discover them. All sympathies to the creative soul: it is just an information processing machine that likes to polish its own ego and collect karma.
Intelligence is a social effect, though it feels personal. A person cut off from others eventually stops thinking. We can neither collect problems nor measure solutions without other people.
The size and diversity of the community is a key factor. Larger, more diverse communities collect more relevant problems, solve them more accurately, and do this faster than a small expert group.
So when we trust the solitary experts, they make classic mistakes. They focus on ideas, not problems. They focus on the wrong problems. They make misjudgments about the value of solving problems. And they don't use their own work.
The Collective Intelligence Index, or CII
I'm going to propose a tool to measure the intelligence of a community, in other words, how accurately and efficiently the community is working at any given time. It also measures how enjoyable it will be to participate in the community.
To demonstrate, I'm going to rank a few networks, organizations, websites, and on-line communities. It's not science; it's more like creative abuse of numbers. As everyone knows, 87% of statistics are invented on the spot and 91% of people accept them without question. I've chosen the following victims:
- The fashion industry
- The Nigerian movie industry, aka Nollywood
- The military (in some random western nation)
- The Fox News network
- Lawyers, as a profession
- The Hollywood movie industry
I'm not going to make any judgment about the value of any specific community. It's impossible, and would be deceptive. Twitter's implied mission is "collect the most followers," which sounds weak when compared to Wikipedia's "assemble the world's knowledge." Once formed, a smart and agile crowd can just as easily create new missions like "bring down the dictator." Arguably, the value (to society) of an on-line community is not their products, rather it is the community itself. With Wikipedia or ZeroMQ, it's hard to separate the crowd from the content. With Twitter, it's really obvious. The content is transient and mostly worthless, the crowd is not.
Here's the scorecard I came up with:
| Criteria | Wk | Tw | Rd | Fb | Fa | Nw | Lw | Hw | FN | Ml | | Strong mission | 5 | 3 | 2 | 1 | 2 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 2 | | Free entry | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 0 | 1 | 2 | 2 | | Transparency | 5 | 3 | 5 | 1 | 2 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | | Free contributors | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 2 | 3 | 3 | 2 | 1 | 0 | | Full remixability | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 4 | 3 | 3 | 1 | 1 | 0 | | Strong protocols | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 3 | 1 | 4 | | Fair authority | 5 | 4 | 5 | 3 | 4 | 3 | 1 | 1 | 0 | 1 | | Non-tribalism | 4 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 3 | 3 | 0 | 2 | 0 | 0 | | Self-organization | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 4 | 2 | 2 | 0 | 0 | | Tolerance | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 3 | 0 | 0 | | Measurable success | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 5 | 5 | 2 | | High scoring | 3 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 3 | 2 | 1 | 1 | | Decentralization | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 0 | 1 | | Free workspaces | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 3 | 2 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | | Smooth learning | 4 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 3 | 3 | 0 | 1 | 0 | 0 | | Regular structure | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 3 | 3 | 1 | 5 | | Positivity | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 3 | 0 | 2 | 0 | 0 | | Sense of humor | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 2 | 3 | 0 | 1 | 1 | 0 | | Minimalism | 5 | 5 | 4 | 4 | 3 | 4 | 1 | 1 | 3 | 0 | | Sane funding | 5 | 4 | 3 | 3 | 5 | 3 | 3 | 3 | 2 | 2 | | Final score | 96 | 94 | 94 | 84 | 71 | 56 | 28 | 34 | 18 | 20 |
Once we can measure the CII of a community or organization, we can increase it by looking at the tools that score low. In theory, this should make the organization smarter, and its participants happier. Of course it's quite likely that a military organization can only work with a low CII. A smart army would quite likely all go home and switch to Reddit.
How to Capture an Open Source Project
Ars Technica has an interesting article on how Google is closing off Android piece by piece. It is a classic game of "capture the flag", played against an open source community. I'm going to explain how this capture works, and how to prevent it.
Why Capture the Flag?
As Ars Technica says, "It's easy to give something away when you're in last place with zero marketshare, precisely where Android started. When you're in first place though, it's a little harder to be so open and welcoming."
Android is, to be fair, largely Google's investment. You could argue that they are entirely justified to turn it from an open system into a closed one, and you'd be right. However, it is like arguing that a central bank is entirely justified in issuing too much currency and creating devaluation. Sure, there is a justification. However there is also a cost, paid by other people. The question is not, is this act justified, but is the price paid by wider society acceptable, and if not, how do we prevent it?
Android is, like any "open source" system sold to the market on that basis, common property. When someone privatizes it, they are increasing their profits, like a money-printing central bank, at the expense of everyone else. By forking Android applications like search, calendar, music, and making their own better versions, Google is competing with other firms using Android on their devices.
The question of capture, how it happens, and how to prevent it, is especially important if you are not Google, i.e. if you are the user of, or a contributor to, an open source project. Android contains many patches from other firms, like LG, Samsung, and so on. As Google turns the operating system into its own private garden, those patches start to be used against the very people who made them.
I believe Google is making a huge mistake in moving the goalposts like this, simply because it will encourage competition against Android. However, that's not my point. I'm just interested in applying any lessons I can learn to my own work, and my own projects.
Two things stand out:
Out of pure self-interest, I will not contribute to an open source project that does not guarantee me, as contributor, that my patches and changes will never be turned into private code, and used against me.
Out of a sense of ethics, I will never create an open source project that does not provide these guarantees to anyone contributing to it.
The Use Case
Let me be very explicit about the use case. It is the Android case: one firm starting an open source project as loss leader, to break an existing market, and asking for help from others to do so. It is a classic strategy and can be very successful. However this is most definitely not the same as a student's research project, a "let's open source our legacy payroll system" dump, or a "five of us got together in a garage and decided to make a new framework" case.
These overlap, and I think the lessons here do apply more widely (and I certainly apply them systematically) yet again, my use-case is the "open source as market breaker" one.
The important thing about an open source market breaker is that it depends on a community to pitch in. Any market follows a power curve where a few players dominate the market, and a majority of players are frustrated. It's by promising this frustrated crowd a way out, that you can convince them to invest in something new and open and potentially game-changing.
Most open source is a failure (seriously, go read some random GitHub projects and see how many are relevant), and even most successes are modest successes that barely matter. As long as there's no serious shift in power, the project can remain a potential market breaker for a long time. It can look very stable and happy. Well, it's easy to be friendly when there's no money on the table.
If and when the project succeeds, the game changes, and the clever guys who launched the market breaker seek to pluck the fruit, and keep it for themselves. And only now do things get interesting.
A Level Playing Field is Not "Restrictive"
There are several ways to capture an open source project, including trademarks and patents. I'm going to look only at copyrights, because this is the most common case. The key agreements that govern the copyright status of an open source project are (a) the license and (b) the contribution policy.
It's a common misconception that "open source" means the code cannot be captured. That is simply wrong. Broadly, there are three types of agreement for copyright:
- A "locked down" license that does not allow remixing, in other words, classic copyright plus some restrictive license.
- A "free to take" license that allows one-way remixing, such as Apache/BSD/MIT.
- A "share-alike" license that enforces two-way remixing, such as GPL, LGPL, and cc-by-sa.
Imagine a DJ who releases a popular beat under the "free to take" model. A major record label takes his beat and makes a remix, and releases it. It becomes a massive hit. Now that new version is locked down. The DJ cannot remix that new work, and may find himself unable even to play the remix. Sure, he can take his old version and improve it, yet it's the commercial version that will get the money.
I trust you see what I am getting at here. Even the best individual talent cannot compete equally with a large firm with marketing and money. The only way I know to guarantee a level playing field in a war of control over culture is a bilateral guarantee of remixing. Bilateral means it goes two ways.
When people call that guarantee "restrictive", I sigh. It's like calling the lock in my car "restrictive" because it stops others from making my car theirs. To call protection from thieves "restrictive" is... well, a failure to think things through, at least. Making rules apply both ways is not restrictive, OK!?
How Does the Capture Work?
Let's clearly restate the goal again, with this exercise. It is to prevent the capture of an open source project by someone with lots of money and power, who is determined to harvest the fruits of the project for their own benefit, at the cost of the community who helped make, or who made the project. I don't care how "justified" such a capture might be, it's what I'm explaining how to prevent.
The license and contribution policy are two halves of one puzzle.
Who owns the copyrights? Are they "centralized" by the project founders, or are they shared by all contributors? It's a vital question. If they are centralized then it is a trivial exercise to buy the copyrights, fork the project, change the license unilaterally, and move off in a closed direction. However, if the copyrights are shared, i.e. many people own the work, together, you need all of their agreement (not a majority, but 100% consensus) to change the license. And that is logistically impossible.
As an aside, if you knew how many people had offered me money for a commercial license for ZeroMQ, you would be astonished (it is a lot). The notion is simple: I sell them a non-LGPL license, they pay me good money, and they make their own versions of ZeroMQ. If I'd not made this impossible, on purpose, a long time ago, I'd be very wealthy. As it is, I have to settle with poor but happy in the knowledge that ZeroMQ will survive me.
Let's examine again the problem with offering commercial licenses to a collaborative work on the side. Imagine a club that hosts DJs, who mix their beats. But the club keeps the copyrights, and sells them to a record label, which makes its own remixed album that the original DJs cannot play for free. So yes, I consider dual GPL/commercial licensing to be a corrupt practice.
No-one will pay for a commercial license for a "free to take" project, since they can just take the code and use it. To some extent I think that is already corrupt, since it breaks the level playing field. A large firm can obviously benefit more from such a license than small teams. Again, imagine your independent DJs against a record label with their marketing and media connections and concert venues.
Now we come to step two of the capture: hire the developers.
"But the code is still free!", people say. Sure. Back to the record label vs. the DJs. Let's say the label hires just one DJ, the key man, and uses him to push the new commercial mix album. Where is the public going to go?
You don't need to hire all the contributors to a community in order to 0wn it. In any random project there will be at most 2-3 top contributors and a large mass of minor ones. Hire the top two, and you can take the project anywhere you like. If the results are remixable, that journey will be entirely fair to those who contributed before. And if not remixable, all other contributors will find their own investments used against them.
There is only one model I know that prevents capture of an open source software project, and that is:
- A GPL-family license (or MPLv2, which works the same).
- Distributed copyrights.
This is how I construct the open source projects I start, and it's the requirement for any community I join. Your right to make money does not include the right to use my work in a competing product, unless that's reciprocal.
Legal primer: Trademarks
Trademarks. What are they, do you need them, and how much do they cost? These are questions that often crop up when we build open source projects. Trademarks can be key to protecting a project from bad actors. Yet there is little advice on line. So here is my guide to using trademarks in open source. This is practical advice, IANAL, and certainly not your lawyer.
A Background to Trademarks
Definitions first. A trademark is a name, phrase, logo, or even a specific color (the "mark") that you're using for business ("trade"). The simple fact of using a mark for some period of time establishes the trademark. However as with all property, the devil lies in enforcement. The question is, always, if you go before a judge with a complaint, what standards of evidence will the judge expect and demand?
No matter the case, criminal or civil, it always comes down to convincing one or more humans. If you ever go to court, keep this in mind. The facts of a case, as each party knows them, are irrelevant. How those facts are documented and presented is all that matters.
Let's back up a little and ask why courts even care about protecting businesses' trademarks. First, it's to protect consumers from misleading sales tactics. Just selling junk isn't an offense as such, except when there are legal minimum standards for health and safety. However selling junk that claims to be a more expensive, well-known brand is an offense. So secondly, trademarks let businesses distinguish themselves and stop unfair competition.
So the judge in a trademark violation case will ask, "Was the intent to deceive the consumer? Would a reasonable consumer be deceived?" And then the judge will ask, "Who owned the trademark, and can they prove it?" Even though the simple act using a mark creates it (under so-called Common Law), that can be hard to establish.
For instance, business A creates a chain of restaurants. Business B opens a competing chain using the same colors and similar name. B is clearly hijacking A's investment in branding, stealing goodwill. Yet when A takes B to court, B produces a document showing their restaurant plans, a full year before A started. How does the judge know who is the liar?
In clear cut cases, you can convince a judge that a copycat is deceiving consumers and stealing your goodwill. Yet the risk of losing such a case is high. It's also costly for courts to deal with such cases. Judges may simply refuse to hear them.
Hence most countries provide a way to register your marks, for a fee. Registration gives you a dated document that establishes your claim to the mark. The trademark office does the job of searching for prior marks in the same area. Before it grants you the registration, it publishes your claim and gives others a chance to dispute it. So after a search, and if there are no disputes, a judge will take the trademark registration as solid evidence.
It is not that simple. A competitor can still claim that their Common Law mark outweighs your registered trademark. They can argue that the registration does not represent real goodwill. This is often understood as, "if you don't enforce your mark, you will lose it," which is inaccurate. As trademark holder you're not expected to police the world. However you are expected to be truthful in court when the judge asks you, "are you using your mark, and suffering real damage due to the unfair competition?"
Finally, courts consider trademarks to apply per segment of the market. So you can have XYZ Car Co, and XYZ Clothing Co, with no confusion to the market. When you register a mark you'll need to explain what "classes" you're using it in. You'll probably want international class 9, which is anything that beeps.
Where and How to Register
If you are large enough to need to register in multiple countries then you are large enough to have trademark lawyers. For the rest of us, it's a bit like buying a domain name. Sure, there are hundreds of domain extensions. Yet we still want a dot-com for our main business.
So it is with trademarks. If you decide to register a mark, do it in the US (via the USPTO) first. That's cheap, and simple. Then over time you can register in the EU (via the OHIM), if you find your project is worth it.
The cost for a US registration is around USD 1500, depending on what lawyer you use. You can find trademark attorneys on line. They'll ask you for details of the mark, proof that it's being used, name and address of the registrant, and credit card details. The process takes about six months. After nine years (and before ten years have passed) you can renew the mark.
Getting a US registration will speed up registration in other countries, if you decide to apply for that later. The risk, and it's a small one, is that a troll will register your trademark in some other country, effectively excluding you from doing business under that name, there.
Before you register, however, ask yourself "what is the chance someone would rip off my name and logo?" If it's low, don't bother. If it's high, then ask "what is the chance a cheat would take this to court?" If that is still low, then don't bother either.
Instead of registering a mark you can raise its visibility. This means being explicit on your website and other materials. "X, Y, and Z are trademarks of MyCorp." This scares off potential cheats, improves your case, if you do try to defend the mark in court, and makes it easier to get registration if and when you need it.
How to Enforce your Trademark
Registered or not, you enforce your mark by telling the other party, in writing, "stop now, or else." If they do not stop, you repeat the warning, with initial claims of damages. If they do not stop, you add on more damages and when you have a solid file, you take it to court.
The vast majority of people will back-off at once. The trouble is when you face someone who's well aware of trademark law, has cheap legal resources, and enjoys time in court.
If you are facing such a firm, and you did not register your mark, you should probably fold your hand, and change your name. The risks are high that you would lose, and have high legal fees and possibly damages to pay. Judges don't always get it right.
If you did register your mark, then you should push ahead and claim damages. You will win, if you stick to the basic rules (you're still using the mark, the damages are real.) Do I need to say, any court case will have to happen in the country of registration? Judges in Belgium won't accept paper from the USPTO.
Trademarks For Open Source Projects
The common misconception about open source is that because the code is free, it does represents no property nor value. The opposite is true: successful projects represent considerable value, owned by many. How does a trademark represent and protect that value?
It comes down to authenticity and reputation. If you download a package calling itself "XYZ v2.0", then you may have expectations. It is compatible; it works; it has no trojans or advertising; it is from the same people as "XYZ v1.0".
If a successful project does not register its name, then anyone can fork it, repackage it, and use the same name. Imagine competing, incompatible versions of "Linux."
When a person or a business registers the name as a trademark, those incompatible forks may still exist. However they may not use the mark. If they try to do that, it's damages time.
I've had this happen at least once in my own projects, and the trademark was the tool I used to stop the incompatible forks and punish the perpetrators. Trademark law is clear enough that saying "trademark violation" will stop 99% of cheats dead still. Producing a registration filing number stops 99% of the remainder.
In a serious project like ZeroMQ you'll end up with three or four marks you want to register, over a period of five to ten years. Register only when it's worth it. That is, to protect real trademarks that you would be willing to defend in court. Consider that in the worst case you might have to spend ten or twenty times the cost of registration, to defend your mark. You might get that back, or you might not.
I hope this small brief has helped you understand trademarks, and how to use them (or not) in your open source projects. And, if someone claims you're infringing on their trademark, how to defend yourself. (Hint: ask them for a registration number.)