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24 April 2013, 17:14

Free's a crowd-funding

by Fabian A. Scherschel

With the recent high profile success of hardware and software projects raising millions of dollars through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Fabian Scherschel looks at what it takes for open source software projects to duplicate this success and the unique challenges these projects will face.

The crowdfunding model has become a very popular way of raising money for software development recently. Game development companies especially have been making headlines by raising record sums for new game projects on the Kickstarter platform: inExile Entertainment's Torment: Tides of Numenera raised over $4 million, its earlier project Wasteland 2 raised almost $3 million, and Elite: Dangerous by Frontier Developments made news in the UK by raising £1.5 million. The Android-based OUYA gaming console raised over $8.5 million last year and has now started shipping devices to its backers.

It's not just proprietary products and projects that have seen success with crowdfunding; a number of open source projects have managed to fund their development, but many have also fallen short. What is it about the successful campaigns that has made them work?

Success stories

One of the earliest open source crowdfunding success stories dates all the way back to 2010 when a group of NYU students raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter, wildly exceeding their $10,000 goal. Not only was Diaspora's fundraising campaign successful, the project also managed to deliver on most of the promises it had made during its campaign. Whether the attempt to create a popular, federated and open source social network itself was successful is doubtful, but Diaspora is nonetheless an early success story as far as its funding is concerned.

Another, more recent, positive example is the LiveCode project, which raised enough money to open source its development environment. An example of a more modest approach is the Codebender project, which asked for $5000 on Indiegogo to cover a year's worth of server and operating costs for its web-based Arduino IDE and ended up with $6881, very close to its original target. Codebender's campaign shows how modest goals are achievable with a relatively low number of backers – in this case, the campaign was successfully funded by 98 people.

Kickstarter's list of successfully funded open source projects has a number of other positive examples to follow. The open source video editor OpenShot raised $45,028 (225% of its original goal) for Windows and Mac OS X ports of its software, a project to provide a schema migration system for the web application framework Django raised £17,952 (718%), a JavaScript library to provide working offline clones of projects in Git repositories got $19,587 (163%), and the VLC developers raised £47,056 (117%) to create a Windows 8 "Metro" user interface for their media player. The git-annnex project, which exceeded its funding goal so far that it reached 826% of its target in the end, even got funded on the first day of its campaign.

The Kickstarter list alone amply proves that open source projects can have successful crowdfunding campaigns. However, for every successful project there a handful of campaigns that never meet their goals. Currently, the Yorba Foundation's Indiegogo campaign that is trying to raise $100,000 to continue development on its free software email client Geary is coming to an end. Yorba is trying to find a way to pay for the full-time development work needed to finish the email client. With the fundraising campaign having mere hours left and looking like it will fail, let's examine what open source project leaders can learn from the successful examples.

Next page: Providing incentives

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