Open Source as Last Resort

Thursday 3 April 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

“Open Source as Last Resort” appears to be popular this week. First, Canonical, Ltd. will finally liberate UbuntuOne server-side code, but only after abandoning it entirely. Second, Microsoft announced a plan to release its .NET compiler platform, Roslyn, under the Apache License spinning it into an (apparent, based on description) 501(c)(6) organization called the Dot Net Foundation.

This strategy is pretty bad for software freedom. It gives fodder to the idea that “open source doesn't work”, because these projects are likely to fail (or have already failed) when they're released. (I suspect, although I don't know of any studies on this, that) most software projects, like most start-up organizations, fail in the first five years. That's true if they're proprietary software projects or not.

But, using code liberation as a last straw attempt to gain interest in a failing codebase only gives a bad name to the licensing and community-oriented governance that creates software freedom. I therefore think we should not laud these sorts of releases, even though they liberate more code. We should call them for what they are: too little, too late. (I said as much in the five year old bug ticket where community members have been complaining that UbuntuOne server-side is proprietary.)

Finally, a note on using a foundation to attempt to bolster a project community in these cases:

I must again point out that the type of organization matters greatly. Those who are interested in the liberated .NET codebase should be asking Microsoft if they're going to form a 501(c)(6) or a 501(c)(3) (and I suspect it's the former, which bodes badly).

I know some in our community glibly dismiss this distinction as some esoteric IRS issue, but it really matters with regard to how the organization treats the community. 501(c)(6) organizations are trade associations who serve for-profit businesses. 501(c)(3)'s serve the public at large. There's a huge difference in their behavior and activities. While it's possible for a 501(c)(3) to fail to serve all the public's interest, it's corruption when they so fail. When 501(c)(6)'s serve only their corporate members' interest, possibly at the detriment to the public, those 501(c)(6) organizations are just doing the job they are supposed to do — however distasteful it is.

Note: I said “open source” on purpose in this post in various places. I'm specifically saying that term because it's clear these companies actions are not in the spirit of software freedom, nor even inspired therefrom, but are pure and simple strategy decisions.

Posted on Thursday 3 April 2014 at 17:35 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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