Can an open source project get acquired? One just did

Can an open source project get acquired? One just did

Summary: Here's a wrinkle that many devotees of open source either don't know about or don't talk about: Open source projects can get acquired by commercial software companies.  To demonstrate that point, one of the more popular open source projects on sourceforge.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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Here's a wrinkle that many devotees of open source either don't know about or don't talk about: Open source projects can get acquired by commercial software companies.  To demonstrate that point, one of the more popular open source projects on sourceforge.net was acquired last week.

To what extent the acquisition of an open source project results in its being taken off the open source shelves depends on many things.  For example, how many people were contributing to it before the acquisition, who are they, and what are their plans now that their open source project has been acquired? 

Podcast To acquire an open source project, the acquirer must be absolutely certain that they are acquiring the copyrights to all of the code being used in the project.  Those copyrights ultimately belong to the individual contributors to the project who, up until the point of acquisition, would have been bequeathing certain rights to their code to others under whatever open source license is behind the project.  To the extent that licensing that code under an OSI-approved license is what let the code out out of the box and into the open source wild, there's nothing that the acquirer can do to put it back in the box.  That code will always remain available under whatever open source license it was published.  But, by acquiring the copyrights and any trademarks associated with that code, the acquirer also acquires the right to modify and distribute the original code without having to make those modifications available under an open source license.  In other words, future versions of the open source software could become closed source.

So, how could this play out?

With a project like Linux, there's pretty much a zero probablility of the project ever being acquired because of how many contributors are involved.  Not only would it be difficult to track them all down, establish with some degree that they are indeed the copyright holders, and reach some mutually beneficial financial arrangement to give an acquirer all the rights they need. There's also the high likelihood that some passionate group of developers would take the core body of source code that was already available under an open source license (the GPL), and exercise their rights to continue the evolution of an open source version of Linux.  The end result, even if someone successfully "acquired" Linux, would be a tangible forking of the code.  One fork would be the open source version that the passionate community carried forward.  The other would be the commercial derivative that was some percentage open source (by virtue of the "grandfathered" code base), and some percentage closed source.

But what about a popular open source project that has far fewer developers with far fewer copyrights to track down? Sure, the developers could sell their copyrights to the acquirer, but nothing prevents them from continuing to evolve the already open-sourced code under an open source license.  That is, unless, in the process of acquiring the copyrights to the source code, the acquirer also hires the most passionate developers -- the driving forces -- behind the open source project.  This is exactly what Paul Doscher and his new startup JasperSoft have done with the open source project JasperReports.  With nearly a quarter of a million downloads to date, and 11,000 more downloads happening every month, the Java-based reporting tool is a popular open source project.  But, as it turns out, it's a typical open source project that a single developer started to scratch a specific itch. At most, according to Doscher, there was one other copyright holder.  Not only did JasperSoft acquire all the copyrights to the JasperReports codebase (and the JasperReports trademark), Jaspersoft hired the main braintrust and driving force behind the project--Teodore Danciu.   In a situation like this, where there isn't a large, passionate contigent of developers that might want to carry the open source-fork of JasperReports forward, Doscher may not have the power to take the existing code off the open source shelves, but he does have the power to let code go stale -- particularly in comparison to the commercial version.

So, now that he's acquired the copyrights and trademarks to JasperReports, what does Doscher plan to do with his startup? And, what does the aquirability of open source projects mean to those who thought their favorite software would be maintained as open source in perpetuity? Could you end up stranded or orphaned while a commercial derivative takes off? In my 30-minute interview of Doscher, which is available as both an MP3 download and as a podcast that you can have downloaded to your system and/or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet's podcasts: How to tune in), Doscher answers these and many other questions about his controversial move and a model he calls "commercial open source."

Topic: Open Source

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14 comments
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  • Not the only one

    LiveJournal is open source and was acquired as well.
    rpmyers1
    • Antother is TORA

      TORA Tool for Oracle Applications (?) was open source on source forge and competed, somewhat, with TOAD.

      The lead insisted upon retaining copyright on all modifications. He sold it and himself to Quest Software, makers of TOAD.

      Open source that requires signing away copyright should be avoided.

      The code is a little stale, but the good news it that it has recently had some activity and there are moves to create an active fork.
      kryszak
  • Not an open source project

    I have no idea what kind of stuff ZDNet is being smoking lately, but sourceforge.net IS NOT AN OPEN SOURCE PROJECT.

    sourceforge.net is a repository or many independently owned open source project. To simply put it, sourceforge.net is a glorified hard drive provided for free by a very generous company.

    The repository is an asset to a company, therefore it can be sold. At the end the OO community would look for other ways to continue the work.

    The possible lost of a free repository is nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.
    wackoae
    • RTFA

      Sourceforge didn't get acquired, a project on sourceforge got acquired.
      rpmyers1
      • I did and before

        I RTFA and before it talked about sourceforge.net being purchased.

        The most of the article changed since I made my post. For example before it was only about 5 paragraphs and all it did was talk about the purchase of sourceforge.net

        Not my fault ZDNet updated the FA after it was read.
        wackoae
        • Wow, nice cover

          not
          EricThom
        • You couldn't have...

          I can assure you that this blog entry never said that sourceforge.net was an open source project that got acquired. Perhaps you should listen to the audio interview. The blog entry is a summary of it. I was the interviewer. I edited the audio before posting it so I had to listen to it like five times. I wrote the blog entry. To imply that the original posting discussed the acquisition of sourceforge or that it described sourceforge as an open source project is, as they say, a good fishing story.
          dberlind
  • Message has been deleted.

    ip_fresh@...
  • Isn't the old code still available ?

    "Doscher may not have the power to take the existing code off the open source shelves, but he does have the power to let code go stale"

    If the original code is still available under an open licence, how precisely does Doscher have the power to let it go stale ? What can he do to stop other people from modifying and subsequently distributing it ?

    The author earlier states that if the Linux Kernel was somehow acquired then it is likely that a group of people would continue to develop a competing open product using the original codebase. So why not with Doscher's project ?
    magcomment
  • What JasperSoft says "commercial open source" means...

    JasperSoft seems to have, in effect, purchased the right claim a "special relationship" with JasperReports. They will offer paid service and support and "value-added product modules" which, they hope, will be attractive to their larger commercial users.

    From JasperSoft's FAQ
    (http://jaspersoft.com/faq.php#osm):

    "What does commercial open source mean?

    "Companies who offer commercial open source products provide their customers and community with choice, opportunity and investment protection. These companies offer a quality, well engineered open source product that meets the general needs of their community. Typically, these companies will also offer the ability to purchase service and support products in order to help the community get the most value out of their open source product. A commercial open source company will go a step further and offer added value product modules that can be purchased for a reasonable price. These modules are not mandatory for gaining benefits from the open source product - but rather they can be added if and when needed by an application based on its evolving requirements.

    "How does JasperSoft fit into this open source model?

    "JasperSoft offers JasperReports, its open source embedded operational reporting library solution, and JasperDecisions, its commercial embedded operational reporting server-based solution. The needs of the application will dictate which of the two solutions is a more appropriate fit."

    Barry Solow
    baslow
  • Letting the code go stale

    He can't prevent others from working on it, but he could stop working on it himself, and, since he was pretty much the only contributor to date, it would likely go stale. At the very least, it would fork.
    grant@...
    • Stale code

      Yes, if the original developer(s) stop working on a free version of the code it could go stale. Whether they move on to a commercial version of the same project or abandon it completely makes no difference.

      If there are enough people who care to maintain an open version, it will go on. If there aren't, it won't. This project is no different thousands of other Free Software projects in that respect.

      And trademarks make no difference, because if there's a demand for the functionality, the name can change.
      Intranet Webmaster
  • legal conclusions in this article

    David -- I didn't notice a J.D. after your name. When did you become an attorney? I'd like to know so I can determine how much credibility to give to the legal conclusions you make in this article. Thanks!

    Paul Anacker, J.D.
    anacker@...
  • Conclusions on Linux

    I admit I don't know much, but how does the kernel stand a chance of forking, on the basis presented here? EMACS & XEMACS split, more because of political issues than legal. I could see a political split with the kernel. But legally speaking, it seems like it would be difficult to take any serious portion of the kernel code proprietary (using your example).

    I realize that's an example, but you might have chosen a better one. It's true that you can take non-copylefted code, and make proprietary/non-free improvements. If one understands the principles of FOSS, generally speaking, it simply doesn't make sense to do release non-libre code.

    I certainly hope for a little feedback.
    evangelinux