If you don't like it, fork it

Summary:If a project's "owner" becomes obnoxious it is both the right and duty of its community to fork that project under a Foundation. Think of the split as a software Declaration of Independence.

Tux with forks from YoLinux.com
One of the big concerns arising from the pending Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo, and of proprietary open source in general, is the fear that a project's owner will abuse its power, even kill a worthwhile project.

Well, fork that. (Picture from a YoLinux tutorial on the fork function of Linux, which is actually a different subject.)

Copying a project over and enhancing it on your own, creating a new, related project, has been around since the dawn of open source civilization, several Internet decades ago. (Roughly one real decade.)

As projects get more expensive to manage, as they demand more bug fixes, code enhancements and support, forking the project gets harder.

But it's not impossible. And it's not illegal.It's right there in the Open Source Definition, practically a Third Law of Robotics for open source:

3. Derived Works

The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

Rationale: The mere ability to read source isn't enough to support independent peer review and rapid evolutionary selection. For rapid evolution to happen, people need to be able to experiment with and redistribute modifications.

The reason companies, and groups of companies, have come to "own" projects is that volunteer efforts have difficulty scaling. It's fun to be free, as in free beer, until you run out of beer. Then the hangover sets in and everyone starts squabbling.

The answer, which has always been in front of us, is the Foundation.

Scaled volunteer projects are generally controlled by a Foundation. Eclipse is a Foundation. Mozilla the company is under Mozilla the Foundation. Think of it as the .org over the .com.

If a project's "owner" becomes obnoxious, in other words, it is both the right and duty of its community to fork that project under a Foundation. Think of the split as a software Declaration of Independence.

One of the early stories I followed here at Open Source was on just such a split, concerning Mambo, an open source content management system. It is, in some ways, a cautionary tale.

The fork, Joomla, continues to move forward, as does Mambo itself. Over time the code bases separate, the projects become competitors. Think of it as evolution in action.

A fork can cost a project momentum, or not. Wordpress, on which this is written, was originally a fork of b2/cafelog. If the forker knows what they're doing, in other words, they can out-do the forkee.

Which gets us back to all those proprietary concerns about projects "owned" by Yahoo and anyone else. Forking gets harder as projects mature. But so long as forking is possible, project owners can't just say, well, you know.

Even Microsoft.

Topics: Open Source

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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