Curious about writing packages for profit

Hi. I’ve been lurking here for a couple months, but haven’t got around to introducing myself or asking the questions that have been on my mind. I found this forum by searching for “free software considered harmful”, which led me to this blog post, which mentioned License Zero, which led me here.

I would very much like there to be an open, efficient market for reusable software components (i.e. packages, like NPM packages, not just programs to be used by end users). Probably for the same reasons most of you are interested in such things. For one thing, it would be nice if I (and others) could make a good living as an independent developer selling components. I also think it could result in higher quality software than the current status quo, where almost all components available for use are “free”.

I have a lot of thoughts about this subject, but I suspect they’re mostly not original. I’d really like to catch up on what other people in the field have been thinking and saying, but I’m not sure where to find such things, aside from this forum and a few blog posts like the one I mentioned above. It would be great if there was sort of an introductory summary on the topic somewhere that people could point me to.

I guess my initial questions boil down to:

  1. Is it currently possible to make a living as an independent developer of reusable packages?
  2. What needs to happen before it becomes practical, or maybe even easy? Or is there no way to get there from here?

My impression is that it’s currently very difficult, if not impossible. Not just because “writing software is hard”; I don’t expect that to become easy, but at least I know how to do it, more or less. I’m thinking of other problems having to do with pricing models, marketing/discovery, enforcement, cultural shift, and so on.

I’m happy to post more details about my thoughts, but like I said, they’re probably mostly things you’ve all already thought of.

@aldel, welcome!

You are certainly not alone in thinking about these problems. Folks here, myself included, have also been involved actively trying various new approaches, even in setting up “missing infrastructure”. That’s how I saw License Zero, and how I now see strictEq.

I don’t think there’s any “definitive guide” to any part of the software business. By some perfectly reasonable definitions of “hard”, making a living in software is always hard, no matter how you go about it. That includes by making and selling libraries, frameworks, and utilities without sharing anything publicly, as many firms large and small have done in the recent past, and are still doing now.

However, folks do tend to end up around here, and around “sustainability as a service” projects more generally, from an open source starting point. In other words, they’re folks who know how to do software in the open, but want to make money, rather than folks already making money selling “closed” software who want more open in their lives.

Among that group, just like any other, there’s a lot more talk and blogging about how things could be than attempts to make it, either in the form of developers actually putting software out for sale or other developers trying to make that easier.

Do you have a project that you would like to offer online?

Sorry I disappeared for a while. Real life (i.e., my job, which pays me to write software!) and real-world distractions took me away for a while.

I’m not looking for a “definitive guide”, just maybe lists of things like some essential readings (which might include this forum, or certain articles on it; certainly it should include the existing documentation on License Zero / StrictEq), or of bloggers who have interesting things to say on this and related subjects. (I didn’t even realize that you, Kyle, were a prolific blogger until a few minutes ago when I saw the links you posted to a couple of your recent posts.)

I actually spent quite a lot of time, 15-20 years ago, trying to build some related infrastructure, but I eventually realized that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was trying to solve too many problems at once, and it was preventing me from doing other things I’d like to spend my life on. Of course things were pretty different then; there wasn’t nearly as much infrastructure for free/open source software. I’m starting to wonder if I should have stuck with it, because now I think the existence of the “free” infrastructure, plus cultural norms that have evolved along the way, are discouraging the development of infrastructure for non-free software.

I don’t have any projects started that I’m thinking of offering. I’m not very inclined to start anything under current conditions. It seems like to get any adoption, a package has to be released under a permissive free license, and I don’t think I want to bother.

I might be interested in working on infrastructure for real, if I could find people to work with.

Here’s a rough list of problems I think need to be solved, or at least ideally should be solved.

  • Shifting the culture away from an assumption of FOSS, and building an ecosystem of non-free packages.
  • Pricing may be really difficult. I suspect that simple formulas probably aren’t sufficient. But I think it needs to be mostly automatic; that is, buyers and sellers can’t negotiate pricing over for individual package dependencies.
  • Enforcement - how important is it? Is it even possible? In the 1980s, software publishers were very concerned with “copy protection”, but nothing they tried really worked. They managed to make a lot of money anyway. (Pretty much like digital media later on.) On the other hand, a big automated economy of package dependencies could probably be abused in serious ways.
  • Marketing - doesn’t “need” to be solved, but it would be really cool if a small software business could exist without having to think about it much (since it’s usually the thing that software developers are worst at). Currently it’s usually pretty easy to find, say, an npm package that does a particular thing, if it exists. But that might not be the case if all the package authors were putting a lot of effort into marketing. I think, ideally, marketing would be basically banned, outside of providing basic searchability, but that’s probably not possible.
  • Ethical issues, like preventing use for evil purposes, which I’m very happy to see being discussed elsewhere on this forum.

Would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on any of that.

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Speaking of “bloggers who have interesting things to say”, is Jonathan Edwards well known around here?

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Wow. What a post.

First and foremost: Welcome! This isn’t exactly the busiest forum on the Internet, but I like it that way. Everyone here is trying to find new models for software, and concerned wit the prevailing culture and assumptions. It’s a great place to have these conversations.

Back to your post, if you’re trying to get a sense of the prior art and what people are trying now, I can give you the list I tentatively call “sustainability as a service”. I really don’t like the word “sustainability”, but it’s the current buzzword, and it helps to keep me taking anything too seriously.

Anyway, my current running list is here:

I’ll copy it out, too:

There are also some things that haven’t become companies or platforms that are worth checking in on. Like some of the funding experiments going on in the more economics/mechanism-design focused corners of the blockchain community. Vitalitk Buterin is one to read there.

If you’re particularly interested in any of the many themes you listed, I’d encourage you to start a new topic here. We need folks to be “constructively selfish”. Use this forum in ways that are good for you, your thinking, and your projects. Chances are very high what’s good for you is good for others here, or least thinking and talking about it will be.


I subscribed to the blog, and had seen at least one post before. But I just saw this post in the feed:

I’ve deleted my last two posts: “The Great Software Stagnation” and “Open source is stifling progress”. They generated far more heat than light.

That said, it looks like the posts are very much still there on the site.

Did the author get brigaded on social media or something?

Did the author get brigaded on social media or something?

I’m not sure. At first I thought he was referring to comments on his posts, but those don’t seem too bad to me. I probably don’t follow the social media where he got in trouble. Or maybe he deleted some comments when he reinstated the posts.

Thanks for the list! It will probably take me a while to work through it (the parts I’m not already familiar with, anyway)…

This isn’t exactly the busiest forum on the Internet, but I like it that way.

Me too! I’m not good at keeping up with high-traffic communities.

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Looks like Jonathan added a note to the bottom of his first post:

[Jan 5: Deleted then reinstated by popular demand. The argument could certainly be improved. I should at least note that there has been substantial technical progress in scaling web performance to meet the needs of the MegaTechCorps and Unicorns. The problem is that much else has languished, or actually worsened. For example small-scale business applications as were built with Visual Basic, and small-scale creative work as with Flash, and small-scale personal applications as with HyperCard. This trend is alarmingly similar to the increasing inequality throughout our society.]

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