This would never happen on my watch

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (695 Words)

I read with some interest Matt Asay’s blog on TWiki, and what has happened over there as the company associated with the open-source project has basically decided to ‘reorganise’ everything, it appears in order to make itself more attractive to venture capitalists.

To be honest, I really don’t understand the motivation at all. All open source projects live or die by the strength of their community, and to suddenly break from it in the interests of attracting investment is crazy. Personally, I’ve never wanted to take VC money if I can help it - I’d prefer to run a small, self-funded and organically growing ship that I can stay in control of, and which I can apply my own brand of ethics to in balance with the need to make a living. Balancing open source and commercial necessity (we all have to eat after all) is tough, and it’s very different to running a regular proprietary software business, so you really can’t apply the same rules without undermining the very basis of the business.

Unfortunately open source poster-child examples like Ubuntu don’t help in many ways. Ubuntu manages to do everything the ‘right’ open source way while still having gazillions of dollars to spend on premises, staff, servers etc - but that’s only because it’s backed by an interested billionnaire who doesn’t really care how long it takes to turn a profit (and probably wouldn’t be too fussed if it never did). So in some ways Ubuntu makes it hard for others because it’s often held up as an example of how things should be done, when in fact almost no-one else can afford to do it that way, unless they can find a billionnaire of their own. Perhaps that leads to cases like TWiki for some projects, where ‘Ubuntu envy’ leads them to chase investment, but at the detriment of the reason they exist in the first place.

All I can say is that this will never happen to Ogre while I’m in charge. I obviously have to seek commercial opportunities related to Ogre, but I have a very deep line in the sand drawn many moons ago that I will never cross. At times people have asked me ‘what would happen if Ogre got acquired?’ - and I have to patiently explain to them that even if I wanted that to happen (and I don’t), it’s actually not possible in a traditional sense, since my company doesn’t own all the code. It owns a lot of it for sure, but the rest is community-contributed and licensed by TKS based on the contributor agreements - which in our case don’t ask for copyright assignment, just permission to use & relicense. This means that no-one could come along and ‘buy it up’, or at least not in the traditional sense. They could buy the domain from me I suppose, and the rights that TKS has, but could not fundamentally change the licensing conditions without approaching the contributors for permission. It’s commercially resticting, but I also see it as a key factor in reassuring the community about the intentions of my company.

When it comes down to it, in many ways having this restriction there is unnecessary - even if I was able to ‘sell’ Ogre, or suddenly change the licensing, I would be stupid to do it, because it would immediately destroy the community, which is what has made it great. Someone would fork a new project from it, and with a bit of time, that would become the ‘standard’ version. There might be some opportunity to ‘milk’ the codebase with custom commercial versions for a little while, but it wouldn’t last. The whole idea is self-defeating in the medium to long-term, as TWiki.net will probably discover shortly.

I’ve talked about business models and open source before, and that it can be necessary for companies like mine to mix in some proprietary aspects sometimes (e.g. optional add-ons) to make ends meet. However, maintaining the absolute integrity of the central open source project and its community at all times is absolutely vital. That’s the heart of it, and any business destabilises that at its absolute peril.