Open source communities must protect their interests

The people of the .org, or the forge site, the user community of every open source project needs to protect its interests and keep itself organized, separate and apart from any commercial interest exploiting the code for profit.

When Oracle bought Sun the first reaction in the mySQL open source community was to fork it.

Now PGP may need a fork following Symantec's purchase of PGP Corp., and speculation it may favor Guardian Edge instead.

There is an important lesson in all this. The interests of open source communities and the corporations that control a project are not always the same.

For a corporation an open source project is just another puzzle piece, just another move on its board. It's an asset. For a community, the project is more. It's where you put your time, your loyalty. It may be where you put your love.

There are many areas where affection is given to what owners see as an asset. Sports is the most prominent. It must be heartbreaking to be a fan of the Portsmouth football club right now, given the mismanagement (or maybe worse) of a series of owners.

The fans didn't do anything wrong. They kept coming, kept cheering, kept paying for tickets. But as a business asset the club is less-than-worthless. It has been stripped of its economic value.

For an American audience, imagine if you were a fan of the old Baltimore Colts, the Quebec Nordiques, the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Seattle Supersonics when those franchises moved? Imagine you're a fan of whatever team is eventually persuaded (by its own interests and those of the NFL) to abandon its fans for Los Angeles?

No one has done that (yet) with an open source project, but in fact they could. Symantec, for instance, could "upgrade" paid PGP users to another product, eliminate development funds from the project, and walk away. That would be its legal right, as it would be the legal right of Oracle or any other property owner.

But where does that leave the community? My point today is that it's in a better position than a football club's supporters, because open source code (unlike a sports franchise or proprietary code) can have a life of its own.

So it's important that projects do have such a life. The people of the .org, or the forge site, the user community of every open source project needs to protect its interests and keep itself organized, separate and apart from any commercial interest exploiting the code for profit.

It's best to know that now, and take action, rather than waiting for your code base to be strip-mined and dumped the way Portsmouth was.