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The new struggles facing open source

Matt Asay | April 7, 2015
The religious wars have faded, as new conflicts around control, code ‘sharecropping,’ ‘fauxpen source,’ and n00b-sniping arise.

Not that ODP is alone in this. Plenty of foundations essentially serve the interests of a single vendor, whatever their ability to gather a few heavy-pocketed friends to go through the motions of "community."

Like the OpenCore concerns of the first 10 years of open source, corporate foundations rub raw the free spirits in the open source world, because such foundations set up an asymmetric power structure. It makes little difference if copyright assignment flows to a single company or a foundation led by a single company, the effect is the same: The would-be contributor amounts to a particularly powerless digital sharecropper.

This isn't the only tension in foundation land.

Controlling the code
One of the primary reasons for going to a foundation is to make project governance open and predictable. Many projects, however, eschew governance or licensing altogether. The so-called GitHub generation has been happy to load the code repository with software of unknown licensing pedigree. While GitHub has been trying to reverse this trend toward license-free development, it persists.

Even where a license exists, GitHub "communities" stand in contrast to more formal foundations. In the latter, governance is central to its existence. In the former, relatively no governance exists.

Is this bad?
As Red Hat chief architect Steve Watt notes, "Obviously, the project author is entitled to that prerogative, but the model makes potential contributors anxious about governance."

In other words, we don't worry as much anymore about a project's license, which was the way corporations would seek to control use of the code. Control of projects has shifted from the code itself to governance around the code.

But it's not only The Man that makes open source a minefield.

With communities like this ...
The final, and perhaps most entrenched, tension facing open source today stems from a problem we've always had, but which has become more pronounced in the past few years: The open source welcome committee is not always welcoming.

It has always been the case that some projects have leaders who can be fearsome to cross. Anyone who has had Linus Torvalds tell them, "*YOU* are full of bull----," knows that open source requires a thick skin.

But things have gotten worse.

No, not because project leads are increasingly rude or callous, but because there are far more newbies in any given project. As one HackerNews commenter notes, "[S]mall projects get lots of, well, basically useless people who need tons of hand-holding to get anything accomplished. I see the upside for them, but I don't see the upside for me."

Dealing with high volumes of would-be contributors with limited experience strains the patience of the best of leaders, and well, sometimes those leaders aren't the best, as this broadside from OpenLDAP's Howard Chu shows:


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