What rankles in open source buy-outs

Summary:Now it's true that programmers who helped build mySQL and Zimbra don't own the project. They don't have a legal claim on the businesses their code built. But there is such a thing as moral equity.

Let's say you join a food co-op.

It's an organic green grocer that slowly adds organic soaps, spices, teas, and meals to its line.

Over time a co-op member comes up with an idea for beeswax candles, another for loofah back sponges, and maybe you add tie-dyed t-shirts to sell at the local festival.

Not only do you spend your money with Hippy Dippy Foods and More, but you invest your time. You help stock the shelves. They give you a discount on your membership, but it's the community you love.

Now let's say the board of Hippy Dippy Foods and More sells out to Whole Foods.

Everything will remain the same, they say. We'll just have more money to make more of the candles and back sponges and t-shirts. We'll make them a national brand.

OK, you say. I can accept that. I may choose to switch my volunteer times to manning the booth at the festival. I'm proud of my tie-dyed innovation and the candles make great gifts.

Then WalMart buys Whole Foods. And if you protest you're told to shut up by the local paper. It's business, you're told. You don't own the stock, you have no say. You never really did.

That's a bit how the community stakeholders at mySQL have felt, watching the project get bought by Sun and, more recently, Oracle. It may be how Zimbra clients feel, watching their software get taken over by Yahoo and, now, VMWare.

It was, let's put on a show, who's got a barn? Then, we're off to Broadway, see you in the funny papers.

Now it's true that programmers who helped build mySQL and Zimbra don't own the project. They don't have a legal claim on the businesses their code built.

But there is such a thing as moral equity. What was us is now you, and you sold out, why shouldn't I be offended, and why should I trust anyone like you again?

You got my help based on an honest copyleft license, I let myself become dependent on that goodwill, and now I'm supposed to smile because you sold out to the guy I invested so much in you to avoid?

What concerns me in this example is not so much what Oracle or VMWare may do with their asset. It's what people who have invested time and money in open source communities may now decide to do.

What's next? Wikipedia bought by the Encyclopedia Brittanica? Firefox gets gobbled by Microsoft?

Legally, the analysts telling mySQL's community to shut up are saying, yes, it could. And you couldn't say a thing about it. That's just capitalism.

It may be, just as Tom Sawyer's game to get his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence was capitalism. But when Mark Twain wrote that his sympathies weren't really with Tom. He was satirizing capitalism itself, and telling young readers to be wary of its glib promises.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Data Centers, Data Management, Open Source, Software

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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