Fork Well: It Could Be The Last, Best Hope for Community

Friday 24 April 2009 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I have faced with much trepidation the news of Oracle's looming purchase of Sun. Oracle has never shown any interest in community development, particularly in the database area. They are the largest proprietary database vendor on the planet, and they probably have very simple plans for MySQL: kill it.

That's why I read with relief this post by Monty (co-founder of the MySQL project) this week, wherein Monty plans (and encourages others, too) to put their full force behind a MySQL “fork” that will be centered outside of Oracle.

Monty is undoubtedly correct when he says I don't think that anyone can own an open source project; the projects are defined by the de-facto project leaders and the developers that are working on the project. and that [w]ith Oracle now owning MySQL, I think that the need for an independent true Open Source entity for MySQL is even bigger than ever before.

I don't find the root of this problem in that one company has sold itself to another, pursuant to the the greater glory of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Instead, I think the error is that projects inside Sun did not have a non-profit entity to shepherd them. When a single for-profit company is in control of a project's copyrights, its trademarks, and employs nearly all its core developers, there is a gross imbalance. The community around the project isn't healthy, and can easily be disrupted by the winds of corporate change, which blow in service of the only goal of for-profit existence: higher profits.

I encourage Monty, as well as core developers of VirtualBox, OpenOffice, OpenSolaris, Sun's Java, and any other project that is currently under the full control of Sun (or indeed any other for-profit corporation) to think about this idea. Non-profits, particularly 501(c)(3)'s, are fundamentally different than for-profits. They exist to serve a community or a constituency and the public good, never profit. Therefore, the health of the codebase, the diversity of the developer and user community, and the advancement of software freedom can be the clear mission of a non-profit that houses a FLOSS project. A non-profit ensures that while corporate funding comes and goes, the mission of the project and its institutional embodiment stay stable. For example, just like shareholders have a duty to fire a CEO when he fails to make enough profit (i.e., the for-profit company is not reaching its maximal goal), boards of directors and/or memberships of non-profits must fire the President and/or Executive Director when they fail to serve the community well. Instead of the “profit motive”, 501(c)(3)'s have the “community motive”.

Yet, the challenge of focusing on such goals remains difficult for projects that did not spawn from a community to start. GNU and Linux were both started by individual developers that built strong communities before there was any for-profit corporate interest in the software. When a project started inside a company with profit in mind, shoehorning community principles into the project can rarely succeed. I believe that a community must usually evolve from the ashes of some incident that wakes everyone up to realize the project will come to harm due to strict adherence to the profit motive.

I should probably remind everyone that I'm not opposed to capitalism per se. Indeed, I've often fought on the other side of this equation when licenses (such as MySQL's own very early pre-GPL license) permit noncommercial use but prohibit commercial use. I believe that commercial and non-commercial activity with the code should be equally permitted in a non-discriminatory way. However, the center of gravity for developers, where the copyrights and trademarks live, and how core work on the codebase is funded are all orthogonal questions to the question of the software's license.

My experience has anecdotally taught me that FLOSS communities function best when the following two things are true: (a) the codebase is held neutrally, either in the hands of the individual developers who wrote the code, or in a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and (b) not too many core developers share the same employer. I believe that reaching that state should be Job One of any for-profit seeking to build a FLOSS community. Sadly, this type of community health is often at direct odds with the traditional capitalist thinking of for-profit shareholders. I'm thus not surprised when FLOSS community managers in for-profit companies can only do so much. The rest is really up to the community of developers to fork and demand that a non-profit or other neutral and diverse developer-controlled management team exist. Attempts at this, sadly, fail much more often than they succeed.

Monty's post likely had more hope in it than this one. Monty didn't jump to my conclusion that Oracle will kill MySQL; Monty considers it also possible that Oracle might sell MySQL or (and here's the possibility I really doubt) that Oracle will change into a community-driven FLOSS company. I love Monty's optimism in even considering this possible. I honestly hope my pragmatism about this is shown to be sheer pessimism. In the meantime, focusing on the MySQL forks and pressuring Oracle to engage the FLOSS community in a genuine way is the best strategy no matter what outcome you think is most likely.

Update (on 17 May 2009): Monty announced an industry consortium that will seek to be a neutral space for MySQL development. I tend to prefer charitable non-profits to trade associations, but better the latter than hoping for Oracle to do the right thing.

Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 16:03 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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