Subscription model based on a doc site paywall

Hi,

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make a living as an independent OS developer. A subscription model based on a paywall has worked out well for independent publishers (think Memberful, Ghost Members and Substack) and I think a similar model could work for OS devs as well.

When I work with a framework or larger library I usually find myself with 10+ tabs open into the doc site by the end of the day and I think this level of usage should warrant a subscription. So if a doc site that I used a lot had a paywall for heavy users I would definitely sign up for it, but most importantly this would also make it easy for companies to pay for it. Donations are simple for individuals, but in a corporation, approving voluntary spending is usually a complicated bureaucratic matter. However, a paywall subscription is just an ordinary expense like any other developer tool that teams can sign up for with a credit card, making it easy for companies to support OS. I wrote this up in more detail exploring other models as well in the blog post: A New Open Source Business Model

I’ve also built a prototype for a documentation paywall network called Dokknet. Dokknet is a forkable company which means that its code is not only open source, but also makes it easy to replicate its services. I explain how that works in this post: A Forkable Company

I would love to hear your feedback here or in person. I arrive in Brussels this afternoon and I will be at Sustain Summit tomorrow. You can also reach out to me on my Twitter.

Best,
Agost

Hi Agost,

Thanks for sharing your idea. I have not heard of this approach before, so there are many aspects to think through.

Foremost, I like the incentive for developers to write excellent documentation that people are willing to pay for.

I hope it is not done at a cost to the software design to require documentation in the first place.

The licensing of the documentation, I think, should not be an open source license, because then you get the issue of people re-hosting it. Standard copyright might work in combination with a “paid documentation license” to explicitly state the permissions that readers have.

I look forward to meeting you at Sustain Summit.

Best,
Georg

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Hi Georg,

Thanks for your insightful comment and I look forward to meeting you as well!

One of the things that I really like about open source is the option to fork. This builds a lot of trust, because, on the one hand, people know that they can take control if needed, and, on the other hand, it’s a strong incentive for maintainers to do what’s good for the community. Because documentation is an integral part of a project, putting it under a proprietary license would prevent forking it, thus weakening this great mechanism. So I’d try to avoid that if possible.

I think the most important thing is to prevent re-hosted documentation from showing up in search results. This does not need a strong copy right claim. For example, I have my blog licensed under a Creative Commons license, but if somebody decides to re-host one of my posts on their blog without attribution for some shady SEO reason, I can get that removed from Google with two clicks and also hurt their ranking in the process. This is why I was thinking that maybe a new open source license could be enough that prevents re-hosting an unaltered version, but lets people host their derivative works after a fork. Of course I can’t say how such a license should be worded, or if it would be enforceable at all, so I will seek out advice from IP experts on this topic if there is interest in a beta version of Dokknet.

Best,
Agost

I understand the intention behind your proposal and I have nothing against having such a license.
The concern I have is that because preventing someone from freely sharing goes against the definition of the Open Source Definition, I think such a license could not be an open source license.

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I care more about the spirit of open source than about arguing definitions, but exactly which point do you think it doesn’t comply with? :slightly_smiling_face:

A license that doesn’t allow re-hosting an unmodified build of the the documentation certainly complies with

  1. Free Redistribution
    The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

Sorry I went down the Open Source Definition route. I agree that exploring the idea behind your proposal is more important than discussing the mine points of licensing.

might conflict with

3. Derived Works

The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

I think that requiring the original author to be named is a fair and valid request that complies, but changes to the docs must be allowed under open source.

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As they say, you should try to get your first client. In my country corporations don’t even sponsor $500 to foundations such as Python Software Foundation even when the core of their business proposition is in Python. Persuading financial department of a company that they need to send money to some organization because some employee feel it is important, was very very hard and took several years of effort and bureacracy.

Considering the route of documentation and forcing, I would take a route of making a public list of organizations that don’t support Open Source initiatives like https://docs.readthedocs.io/en/stable/advertising/index.html to make documentation accessible, and let people decide if they want to join these companies and why. Sometimes some employee can make a difference.

I personally avoid any documentation that I can not read from another device or send a link to it in public channel. Some experiments for supporting people behind docs were made in crypto community like https://steemit.com/ and https://kauri.io/ I don’t have any metrics for them.

Thanks for the links!

Persuading financial department of a company that they need to send money to some organization because some employee feel it is important, was very very hard and took several years of effort and bureacracy.

I agree and this is the problem I’m trying to solve. A developer trying to do the right thing at a company has a very hard time getting a $10 a month donation approved, but buying a subscription in the same amount for a developer tool is a much simpler proposition. I think the lowest friction service that an OS dev can provide is paid access to the documentation site, so that’s where the idea comes from.

I personally avoid any documentation that I can not read from another device or send a link to it in public channel.

I totally get that and the plan is to keep the documentation open source so you can even build it locally and browse it offline if you wish. It is only daily users that are required to log in, new visitors to a doc site aren’t bothered by the paywall. You can check out an example integration at https://dokknet-example.com.