Open money and Debian

I recently read an introductory article in an IT magazine on the increased usage of new currencies. It briefly mentioned the work of a researcher called Arthur Brock in using those currencies within open source communities. While I did not find more details on the research, it led me to think again about Debian’s relation with money.

The reason why we have troubles using money to pay the time spent by our developers is that money is scarce and it’s thus next to impossible to be fair in the way money is spent among us. So why not invent a new currency that is not scarce and that would encourage the kind of work that we really value? Apparently there is free software out there to build new currencies: see or Let’s call the new currency “swirly/swirlies” for the sake of the examples below.

There are then multiple ways to create a small economy within the community and/or even create bridges with the national currencies:

  • we could have auctions (priced in swirlies) to redistribute goods among us (say I have this unused laptop and I want to give it away to someone who could make use of it within Debian)
  • Debian sponsors/partners could offer discounts codes on their products and Debian would exchange them against the Debian-specific currency (inspired by community way);
  • swirlies could be used to get funding to attend debconf and/or other meetings;
  • we could donate our swirlies as bounties on important projects that we want to see implemented, we could even grant swirlies to release managers to help them drive the project towards a release (they would not end up in their accounts but they could use them to motivate people to work on release blockers);

I’m sure we can come up with many similar ideas. Feel free to share yours in the comments.


  1. says

    I think you’re making a core assumption that may not hold true for everybody – that Debian is its own reward. Personally, the reason why money is a motivator is BECAUSE it has no connection to Debian. If someone sponsors me, I can spend the money on ale and whores – not a minuscule list of people who might accept “swirly” gift vouchers.

    I can’t think of something i’d want less as a reward for working on Debian than a token for more work on Debian.

    The problem Debian has with money is that all thousand DDs are equal – so anything which benefits only a few developers isn’t “fair”. Gift vouchers is not a solution to this.

  2. says

    @Jo, I understand this but as I said there could be bridges. If you can get a discount code in exchange of swirlies, this code has a value for anyone who wants to buy the good in question so it can be traded against real money. Exchanging goods indirectly with the help of swirlies also does not impose any limit on the use you make of the good… you could sell it for real money or you could use it for non-Debian stuff as well.

    BTW, while all DD are equal in the rights they have, they are certainly not equal in terms of value added to the Debian project (some contribute 25h per week, others 1h per month), but we lack tools to evaluate the value that we all add. That is the core of the problem.

  3. Joe Buck says

    The problem with these sorts of artificial currencies is that they are often (that is, much more often than with official currencies) subject either to hyperinflation or deflation, because either too much or too little is created.

  4. says

    if you have available new/used goods like a laptop or discounts on services (maybe HP equipment discount), there could be a list of them accessible to DMs & DDs. Then have people submit a proposal.

    Eg. Joe hacker needs a laptop to work on his XYZ debian-related project.
    The items are listed with a proposed value/price: X dollars, ‘20% discount’, ‘free hosting for Debian projects’, or some such.

    And a committee reviews the project and determines if it will quality for the goods/services required.

    People could also propose bounties and propose what they will give to the people who contribute to and/or complete it.
    eg. If any DM/DD fixes a RC bug, I will send them a box of hand-made debian cupcakes
    but you can be more creative than that 🙂

    Currency can be in regular good and services but also things like hand-made items, a LOLdebian cartoon, or something personal.

  5. Brian says

    We have alt money conferences here in California fairly regularly. People with more background in the subject than I participate, but personally, I am strongly against this.. A few thoughts: money is *not* scarce, its being kept its own circles.. in fact, the volumes on the financial markets are near incomprehensibly large.. its just that things that you and I think are worthy, arent getting it; it attracts tax enforcement.. ; ghetto-izing yourself has not historically proven to be a good strategy in human affairs; a profound challenge to our times is to change the basis of value.. most notably, the “double bottom line” or “triple bottom line” of People, Planet, Profit are absolutely not expressed in current systems of value; markets operate on a scarcity assumption, while OSS is more like a gift economy.. what to do? ; money ought to bend to the will of people, not the reverse.. I say, bend the system of money that exists

  6. says

    @Brian, money is scarce for numerous reasons. The fact that it comes from debts means that there’s less money than the amount needed to reimburse the debts with the interests. I suggest you check out to learn more about the problem.

    And yes there’s lots of money in the system but it stays close to those who already have lots of money, it’s not circulating as much as it could if the rules were different. Changing the rules of the current system is very difficult but introducing new “games” with new currencies is something much more achievable. Anyway, we’re getting far from the initial idea expressed in my blog post.

  7. tim says

    The reason why open source projects have trouble paying contributors is because the work of contributors is worth, individually, almost nothing.
    That’s nothing to do with money. By “worth”, I measure the value according to the time honoured tradition of seeing how much it costs to get someone else to do it. In a strong open source project, if (a) does not fix BUG, then (b) or (c) or (d) will do it. When a project proceeds by small incremental improvements, it meets this condition, and will be a sensationally successful project. A creates a word processor. B wants to use it in Polish, so abstracts the user interface and translates it to Polish. B wins: a top class word processor in Polish for much less effort than starting from scratch. A requires B to contribute her work for free. She does; she’s still ahead of the game from her point of view. C then uses the work of A & B to offer the word processor in Esperanto. It snowballs. Each user’s contribution is free and basically worth nothing on on the open market, and yet is a highly rational choice compared to their alternatives. A project with a high investment before anything useful is created won’t work for open source (building a bridge over a river, for example). But a project which rewards small diverse contributions of almost no individual value will work.

    Your idea about “currency swirly” is odd because you provide ways for people to spend the money, but you don’t explain how it would be earned. If a currency is to mean something, then it must be worth something and it must be scarce (two ways of saying the same thing). If your currency is worth nothing, then distributing it will be easy, but spending it won’t be interesting. If your new currency is to have real value, then how will you measure it? If it’s measured by a market mechanism (people trading freely) then it’s simply an exchange rate away from any other money on the planet, and therefore nothing but a complication. If it’s worth something but distributed other than freely, you have a dictatorship.

    Actions by central banks during the GFC explain why you are wrong about moeny coming from debt. Although the criticism you raise would be valid if we were still on the gold standard. There’s a famous story about a baby sitting co-op that created its own currency, but ran into the same problem as the gold standard.

    I heard a story once about a fictional country that persuaded its people that progress was being delivered by changing the speedometer in the cars to show double the speed. People were happy: their government had given everyone cars that were twice as fast. But then people noticed that it was taking just as long to travel from (a) to (b); the government solved that problem by restating road signs so that cities that used to be 100Km apart were now 200km apart. But soon, people saw through that as well.

  8. says

    @Tim, the interest is precisely in how that virtual money is distributed. Each contributor could be granted the right to distribute a fixed amount of (new) swirlies every month. It could be used to thank another contributor or it could be offered as bounty on projects that are of high interest to him.

    The value of the money is evaluated by market principles because that’s the only sane way to deal with a the varying amount of swirlies in circulation. Swirlies collected by Debian for some specific purpose (debconf funding for example) would be destroyed but at the same time new swirlies are distributed every month.

  9. says

    I agree that ‘swirlies’ might not get accepted and used everywhere, but there is a natural market on the internet for this type of currency. Look at Hacker News’ karma for example, or Stack Overflows’ points, or whatever – you could even convert your Twitter followers to some type of Credit Default Swap and monetize your swirlies that way. Yeah, you cannot buy ale and whores with them, not least because they are often illegal in any currency, but you could buy online prestige, whuffie, or whatever you want to call it.

    And that would be useful. Look at the online currencies springing up in MMOs for example, what if you could accrue enough points in WoW, convert the points to swirlies and pay for development in Debian of features you want in WoW? That alone seems like a worthwhile enterprise.