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The Licensing and Compliance Lab interviews Aaron Wolf of

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Dec 29, 2014 03:21 PM
This is the latest installment of our Licensing and Compliance Lab's series on free software developers who choose GNU licenses for their works.

In this edition, we conducted an email-based interview with Aaron Wolf, co-founder of, a web platform coordinating patronage specifically for freely-licensed works. Aaron Wolf is a music teacher by trade who got involved in the free software movement in 2012 building on his earlier interest in free culture and cooperative economics.

What inspired you to create

We need the general public to embrace and support free software and free culture.

We face many challenges, but one thing is clear: most people don't like proprietary terms, advertising and tracking on everything, or other anti-features. We would all prefer to have the same technology and creative works be free-as-in-freedom. Still, we don't all care enough to give up the features that proprietary works offer.

Our problem involves collective action. Each individual who uses proprietary software recognizes that they have negligible influence over the overall market. We need a critical mass of people together to move our support from proprietary to free projects if we want freedom without sacrificing the features and high-quality that many proprietary products offer.

Back in 2012, I was complaining to a friend about this situation. I described how I wished I could make an agreement with all sorts of other people who, like me, were hesitating to do all they could to help free projects. I'd like to make a pledge with others that I'd contribute a little more for each additional person who would join me.

That friend, David Thomas, happened to be a programmer and had some free time at that point. He convinced me that my idea was worth pursuing, and he offered to help make it happen. I hesitated but eventually decided to do it even though it meant giving up my plans to pursue a musicology PhD.

We brainstormed about names related to collective action, tragedy of the commons, prisoner's dilemma, and so on. And we settled on the metaphor of the snowdrift dilemma (we further adapted the metaphor to our context, see here).

We agreed that every detail of our new platform needed to be consistent with serving the public interest. Thus, we're structuring as a non-profit cooperative, building the platform with 100% free software, making it exclusively for free-as-in-freedom projects, and implementing the most ethical and honorable policies we can devise. Two years and huge amounts of work and research later, we're getting close to operating.

What's the project status today?

We have a live site but are still in alpha state. We have the matching pledge details figured out for at least the initial launch version (we can adapt things as necessary after we begin operations). It wasn't easy to choose what tools to use, and we ended up deciding that it would be most valuable to have an integrated platform that encourages engagement, feedback, and volunteering alongside funding. So, the site has accessory tools (wiki, discussion, ticketing) which we're using for our own development and which all projects may use if they choose.

We're currently running a fundraising-drive at to cover our legal costs and extra development. At this point, we've reached our first couple goals for funding but hope we continue to get additional support as we have a lot more still to do.

Despite only testing with fake money on the live site, we have registered over 600 users already. We see a lot of interest, and we're feeling optimistic. We hope to start getting projects listed soon.

What features do you think really sets Snowdrift apart from similar software?

We did a lot of background research about the history of funding for free software and culture and reviewed over 700 other web platforms; see our software history article and our review of other platforms.

A few other web platforms offer some features worth comparing, but we're really quite distinct. Our funding mechanism is new. Our technical design emphasizes progressive enhancement — that means everything is functional without relying on client-side JavaScript at all (and, of course, wherever we use some JavaScript enhancements, that's still all free software). Many bits and pieces can be compared to other software, but we're a unique package with a number of novel elements. For example, even our approach to ticketing is unique because we integrated it with our discussion boards in order to lessen the divide and the unnecessary duplication we often see between separated forums and ticketing systems.

Why did you choose the AGPLv3 as Snowdrift's license?

We aren't building the software with the main goal of others running it themselves (although we hope to split out some of the accessory tools so they can work independently), but we see it as important and ethically consistent with our mission that people have the freedom to run the software on their own or fork the project. If we ran the site with proprietary software, it would give us particularly strong lock-in, and that amplifies power imbalances and conflict-of-interest concerns.

AGPLv3+ allows us to not only share our software freely but to ensure that it stays free. I think it would be great for all software to be under AGPL. The Affero clause doesn't hurt anything; basically, it either does nothing (in the case of a program that would never be run over a server) or it protects our freedoms — so, might as well include it for any software.

How can users (technical or otherwise) help contribute to Snowdrift?

See But, in summary, coders can jump in and help with patches. The main code is written in Haskell, but we have lots of work that mostly involves simple HTML, CSS, or JavaScript coding.

We also have legal, design, organizing, illustration, and other work to do. It would even help to have more people actively welcoming visitors to our #snowdrift IRC channel at It also helps to have more people simply testing the site and participating in the discussion boards at We welcome all sorts of questions and constructive feedback.

We also want to determine the optimal projects to sign up for our launch. Ideally, those will be downstream, user-facing, reasonably broad audience sorts of things that have decent history but clear need for more funding.

Enjoyed this interview? Check out our previous entry in this series featuring Jessica Tallon of PyPump.

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