Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Tragedy of The Eclipse Commons and Taxation

I've seen it proposed recently that in order to undo some of the "Tragedy of The Commons" happening with the Eclipse platform, that we ought to somehow enact some sort of tax whereby the Eclipse Foundation would be funded by the community and would itself hire developers to work on the Platform.

It's an interesting and tempting idea.  I'm not entirely sure how it would work though.  What would you tax?  How would you tax it?  How much would you tax it?

When it comes to taxation in our "real" lives, it comes in various forms.  Some taxes are assessed on things we do, such as income taxes.  Others are assessed based on things we own, such as property taxes.  Some taxes are on things we purchase, such as sales taxes, gasoline taxes, etc.

The Foundation does not have the power of law behind it the way our governments do, so they cannot declare by fiat that the community must all start giving them money, just because they say so.  They must somehow convince us that we should give that money voluntarily.  We are all already free to donate money to the Foundation, and this hasn't happened, so I think we need to be practical and assume that people aren't just going to open up the chequebook all of a sudden out of altruism.  The only plausible solution would be that the Foundation would somehow tax some service that they provide to the community, and if you don't pay, you don't play.

Some have suggested that seats on architecture councils and whatnot are the solution.  Pay the tax, and you get a seat.  We've already basically had that for years (various levels of corporate membership got you seats on various councils), and it hasn't really worked, because as others have pointed out, in a largely autonomous meritocracy like we have at Eclipse, these councils can't really force anyone to do anything.  The architecture council might tell project X that it ought to be doing Y at point Z in time, but when it comes down to it, it's almost entirely the committers on project X and/or their employers that decide what they work on and what direction their project takes.

I don't really call purchase of council seats a solution, because really this is part of how we have gotten here in the first place.  By and large, if I'm a company paying people to be committers on project X, it is likely that I'm going to tell my committers to work on the things that I care about.  Where the needs of others intersect with that, that's great, and if I'm a really generous company, I may even devote resources from time to time towards the common good, but the bottom line is that if push comes to shove, I am paying those people to service my needs first and all other concerns are secondary.  This is just a simple fact of life and no one can be faulted for this.

When it comes down to it, I think they only thing you really could tax is the one thing that really gives one real power on Eclipse projects, and that's being a committer on the project in question.  Committer status and the rights and privileges that go with it are the single most valuable thing the Foundation has to offer.  Without committer status, your power to effect change is very limited, but with it, you can not only commit changes to the code itself, but you get a say in project votes and strategic direction (the latter by virtue of the "every committer has a veto on code changes" principle).  The pros are very tangible.  Pay the tax, and you are clearly empowered to do things;  don't pay, and your ability to do things is definitely diminished in comparison.  Note that we speak not of simply purchasing commit status outright;  you would still have to earn your commit rights the old fashioned way, but in order to have your committer account in working order and the associated committer rights and privileges, you would have to pay the tax periodically.

Such a tax though would be a barrier to entry for those that have the desire to help out, but not the financial means.  For example, students and small companies might not be able to afford the tax, and companies might simply fork the code and keep their contributions private if they thought the tax was too high.  Some might not pay no matter what the price.  So is this tax a good idea?

In order to start trying to put things in perspective, let's try putting actual numbers to the scenario.  To keep things simple, let's say you decided that individual committers (i.e. that aren't associated with a member company) were exempt from the tax, but all other committers had to pay.  Looking at the dashboard, if you take out the individual committers, there are 465 active commiters left that might, in our simplified scenario, pay the tax.

If your goal is to hire say, 4 developers in the Ottawa area (where the Foundation offices are), your burdened cost for them including benefits and whatnot is going to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $140k each, or $560k total for all four of them.  Whether or not 4 developers is even sufficient is up for debate of course, but let's use the number just for the sake of the thought experiment, because we have to start somewhere.

Dividing that $560k up amongst 465 committers, you need to tax them a little over $1200 a piece to get the required funds.  (Maybe they would even need to pay more than that, I'm not sure how donations to the Foundation would or would not be taxed by the government.)

So the big question is whether companies would be willing to pay that.  Some companies already pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be "members" of the Foundation... would they be willing to pay this tax on top of that?  How many committer would you lose that either couldn't or wouldn't pay the tax?

I do not purport to have the answers here, but it's something interesting to think about.

What do you think?



Andrew Eisenberg said...

You are missing the fact that many large companies pay significant amount of money to be members of the Eclipse foundation. See here:

Increasing membership fees could cover the cost of new developers. Individual committers should not have to pay. Of course, increasing the cost of membership may cause the foundation to lose some members, but that may be worth it.

There is a different problem, however. There are many companies (of these, many are already foundation members) whose sole business model is selling support for Eclipse.

If the foundation hires developers to work on improving Eclipse, then this could cut into the business of foundation members. So, it would be hard to get any such proposal passing through the foundation.

To get around this, perhaps the foundation doesn't have to hire devs, but rather subcontract to foundation members. But, of course, how do you choose who gets contracts? Could be a lot of in-fighting for this.

I don't have an easy answer, but I do think something like this is necessary.

Chris Recoskie said...

I'm not missing it at all... I referenced that directly and openly questioned whether member companies are willing to pay more money. In all honesty I don't think they are because I think membership is already a hard thing to sell for the reasons I outlined.

As far as companies that sell support, I think they would still have a value add in that the dollars you pay them would entitle you to get them to work on things you wanted them to work on. The Foundation, being independent, would have no obligation to do work for anyone in particular, but rather would service the common good.

I am not necessarily advocating the taxation scheme I outline, or even taxation at all, but rather I'm presenting it as the only one I see as being remotely plausible, or put another way, the most likely taxation scheme to succeed if one were implemented.

Alexander Kurtakov said...

Paying for committership is the worst idea I have ever heard. It really makes no sense to ask the one doing the work to even pay for doing the work. This is so anti-FOSS that is something like this happens I would envision something like OpenOffice -> LibreOffice to happen.

Lars Vogel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lars Vogel said...

My first comment was trying to be funny, but I realized that it might sound offending so I deleted it.

I agree with Alexander Kurtakov, that idea is the worst I have heard is a very long time. Tax the people which spend their free time to help Eclipse would make sure that Eclipse would soon have to free contributors anymore.

Chris Recoskie said...

This is basically my point... taxation will not work.

The best hope you have of getting it to work is to do exactly the opposite of what you should be trying to do. I.e. in order to try to get the tax to succeed, you end up shooting yourself in the foot by making it harder to contribute, and hence you probably lose more help than you would ever gain.

Louie Donovan said...

Taxation can be beneficial if everyone gets the benefits, taxes are just or commensurate to the lifestyle of an individual. The poorer a person is, the less should he pay, the richer the more he should pay.

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