Small open source & corporations & communities rant

Y'know, there are loads of companies out there who do "get" open source. Even big ones, like IBM, Sun or even Nokia. I don't mean that everything they do is or should be Free or Open Source Software (FOSS), but when they choose to use or support open source for business reasons, they are savvy enough to understand how FOSS works, participate in the community, give back stuff which benefits everyone and in general work together with the project. Doesn't always work, and sometimes they make bad business decisions, but hey, at least the capacity is there.

Then you got the clueless ones.

Some time ago, I was contacted by an unnamed company, who wanted to use JSPWiki as a part of their product. We talked, but in the end, I told them: "It's open source, you can use it - within the license - anyway you want. I can't do any work for you now, but if you do choose to use JSPWiki, do participate in the community so that we can both benefit from each other."

A few days ago I got a letter. In the letter, the company said that they were disappointed in the fact that JSPWiki community didn't show any interest in co-operation, and that they had forked JSPWiki code and made it better, and that they were open sourcing it on their own.

Well... In the months between these two discussions, there were no emails to the community mailing lists, no issues filed by these guys, no patches contributed whatsoever. They apparently made the elementary mistake that you can take the head coder, and assume that this guy speaks for the whole community - just like a program manager would speak for the whole program.

Guess what, buddy? It doesn't work that way. The only way to convince an open source community is by putting money where your mouth is. You start the work, do it with passion, and if there are enough people who like it, you will get a community. There are no shortcuts, no magic. As I said before (in that particular rant/interview), in order to make an open source project to really work, you need two types in the community:

  1. People who do it for the passion. These people provide stability and long-term memory for the project. They may not contribute much code-wise, but they are essential in keeping the community together, keeping the spirit, and providing long-term vision. You can control these people about as much as you can control a herd of cats.
  2. People who do it for the money. These people are hired by corporations to work on a particular piece of the code. They provide the raw thinking power behind a lot of innovations of the system. But they go away, once their thing is done, leaving maintenance to the passionate people.

Sometimes a project is lucky enough to have both types embodied in the same people, which turns its viability up a knob. Many of the infrastructure projects are like this - Linux and Apache being good examples.

But you cannot treat a FOSS project the same way you would treat another company. There is no central person who makes decisions for everyone else, and nobody to make a deal with. You can buy individual developers, and make them take the project in a particular direction, but even then it really comes down to sitting down, rolling up the sleeves and banging out the code and contributing it back to the community.

Because if you don't, and you fork, you are responsible for the maintenance, the bugs, and the everything. And then you lose, because then you pay your own guys for the same stuff as what the project programmers are doing for free. And the further away you drift from the trunk, the more expensive it becomes to follow the community, and the more difficult it will be for you to reverse your decision, because few FOSS projects are interested in taking in patches for an ancient version of the codebase.

And the funny bit is - these guys forked from a version of JSPWiki which was still LGPL. They have no choice but to make it open source, because that is what LGPL says. If they were using the latest version, they could use it under the Apache license, which wouldn't be so restrictive. Though, I have to admit, that the cluelessness which has been shown so far might mean that they haven't even realized that they don't have a choice. I've had earlier problems with them not sticking to the LGPL license terms. I'd hate it if I had to go and bang them with a lawyer-shaped cluestick.

Frankly, while they say that they are going to open source their own fork, I don't give them much hope for success. Their behaviour so far shows that they cannot even talk to an existing community, so how on earth could they create a new community from scratch?


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"Main_blogentry_210908_1" last changed on 21-Sep-2008 13:14:47 EEST by JanneJalkanen.