Crypto has a copycat problem

Crypto has always worn its open-source ethos as a badge of honour. Permissionless means just that — anyone is permitted to add to the creative commons, and novel entrepreneurship is never monopolized by a centralized power holding all the cards.

The open-source approach, rooted in principles of collaboration, security and transparency, promises a world where our tech-bureaucracies remain transparent, with anyone able to view, audit and modify code.

Yet “open-source” has a dark underbelly, where great innovation is lifted wholesale, rebranded and put out to tender with barely a backwards glance (or credit) given to the original creators. In the crypto realm, far more intellectual effort and productive zeal is expended on marketing than on advancing the baseline technology that brought us all together. Not so much standing on the shoulders of giants, but sometimes breaking their backs as you crawl up to seek starry riches from the promontory.

We’ve seen it countless times. New layer-1/layer-2 ecosystem getting hot? Quick, fork any DEX that’s seen moderate success, splash on new paint and claim you’re the first DEX on the hottest new chain. And it’ll work. While forking makes the dream work and we wouldn’t be here without open-source — innovation remains paramount to stop crypto from ossifying into a game of quickfire copycat.

Where open source began

Open-source traces its roots back to the mid-90s, an evolution from the “free software movement” of the 80s. Spearheaded by visionaries like Richard Stallman, it championed the belief that software’s use, reproduction and editing are fundamental human rights. Think of it as the digital age’s “freedom of speech.” This gave rise to licensing practices emphasising that software should remain free and distributable.

In contrast, not all open-source licences share this ethos — for instance, the permissive MIT licence is neutral, focusing less on ideological standpoints and more on the pragmatics of code distribution. It’s a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, a developer can repurpose Uniswap’s code, re-theming a DEX around, say, “PastaSwap,” potentially improving upon the initial. On the other, there’s nothing stopping this innovator from sealing their code in secrecy, also known as close-sourcing, even if 95% of their project stands on the shoulders of the original.

The sad truth is that in many cases, open-source has melted into a marketing buzzword. Many projects claim they claim they are “open-source” when really, only the basic code they copied under the MIT or Apache licence is truly open-source and auditable by all, with plenty of proprietary behaviour happening on the backend, hidden from view under the claim of protecting users from “day zero” vulnerabilities.

And let’s not even start on meme coins. While some might argue these tokens embody the spirit of decentralized fun, these candy-coloured trojan horses often conceal dubious intents. For every sincere project that forks open-source, innovates and improves the interchain thesis, there’s a horde of malicious actors plotting in the background.

The more mundane, but no less insidious to crypto’s health, is the rampant regurgitation of any successful project under a hundred aliases. V3 liquidity announced? Everyone is suddenly about v3. Who cares what it means or what it does, just copy the code and put it in. This race leads to poorly implemented products that adhere to no real vision, but rather just create mass user fatigue and diversion from the progress being made.

Read more from our opinion section: Crypto is lost at sea, but I’ll be the lighthouse

Which, of course, is a massive shame. Web3 is all about being open. Crypto is just a part of a much larger social, philosophical and technical movement towards enshrining free roam of our virtual worlds, digital ownership and protection against censorship.

So how do we strike a balance with the open source question?

The holy trinity is providing the right incentives, mentorship and nurturing a culture of recognition.

Rather than relying on mercenary liquidity incentives, ecosystems can establish grant and bounty programs, where devs are rewarded for improving code and introducing features that benefit the greater good. Often though, this can’t be done without mentorship, since many founders mistakenly believe that repackaging a product and relying solely on existing open-source code is easier and provides the same end result: These same founders fail to account for the long-term consequences of just creating yet another copy.

Crypto needs to develop a decentralized social conscience. Yes, not everyone will play fair. But founders, thought leaders and crypto-focused institutions must understand that to make the tide rise and lift all boats, we must add new water to the sea.

Ultimately, copycats are here to stay. But those who adhere to a genuine, open source ethos should benefit most. Respect OGs, review code, give credit and make tangible improvements. Crypto could then transform from a nascent asset class into a global, permissive and inclusive internet financial system, with network effects that revolutionise the micro and macro economies of our modern world.

Ex-journo, legal ace, comms lead, and narrator of new-age net tales, now at the helm of GM Factory, where he helps digital neophytes beam beyond the daybreak.