Be careful what you wish for: a successful developer community discouraged away from open source

Short Form


Let's say you want your freedom-valuing software community to be wildly successful - with lots of user demand, a viable way that people can make money from their work if they want to, a heavily international audience, and lots of young people interested. What happens if you get what you want? I'll explain cultural context from the iOS jailbreaking community that can serve as some interesting early warning signs of problems that could happen in open source.


I work with a thriving developer community with a culture that strongly values many kinds of user and developer freedom, but much of it doesn’t emphasize traditional forms of open source software, partly related to negative experiences – and this is an interesting situation that the open source software community should be thinking about as it figures out how to move forward.

In the broader open source community, there has been a history of efforts at helping independent developers make money from the open source software they work on, through payments, donations, subscriptions, and so on – people seem to want a popular and effective way for developers to make a bit of money. People also want lots of user demand for their software, very international userbases, and lots of young people being involved. I’m going to explain some problems that can happen when you have a freedom-valuing software community with all of these things – they’re great, but watch out.

In the iOS jailbreaking community, we have a popular and easy-to-use software distribution system (open source and built on APT/dpkg) with an integrated payment platform, and people can and do gain reputation and make money with it. The community includes huge user demand for new software, including many people willing to pay money for tools and services, even for open source tools (because it’s easier to use the pre-compiled version). We have an extremely international userbase, where English-speaking and US-based users are the minority. A large percentage of the user and developer community is young, from about 13 to 19.

This environment means we also have serious problems with people grabbing code from GitHub, ignoring the license, and distributing and even selling it without complying with the license – which discourages people from releasing projects as open source. People use open source code to help them build adware and scams. People fork projects without contributing back to the original maintainer, or they build several similar projects without working together – it’s tempting to gain reputation with your own project, it’s possible to be successful without the effort of careful collaboration, and other related motivations get in the way as well. People get sad and discouraged when they release code with an open source license to contribute to human knowledge and then find out other people are selling it, even if that technically complies with the license. Blog spammers make ad-filled websites for projects in order to make a buck.

I’ve worked on coping mechanisms for these systemic problems with limited success, including a list of projects that are open source (helping developers get reputation for this), an explanation for developers of the potential ramifications of putting an open source license on your project, and efforts at developer education about how to collaborate on open source projects. Some potential coping mechanisms, such as using lawyers to reduce trademark infringement, are not financially practical for most of the developers in the ecosystem.

So I’ll tell you some stories, and we can have an interesting discussion about how these problems might or might not be serious concerns for the future of open source.


culture, community, money, Freedom, motivation

Speaking experience

This is a new talk! Speaking experience about user and developer community:

* Open Source Bridge, "Civilizing IRC and forums: moderation strategies for mutual respect" - description ( and slides (
* Write the Docs, "Strategies to Fight Documentation Inertia" - video ( and text (
* JailbreakCon, "What is this Reddit thing?" - video ( and slides (

* JailbreakCon, "Why I care about jailbreaking" - video ( and text (
* Lightning talks at AdaCamp and Community Leadership Summit.