The Role of FOSS Foundations

Clean IP management and neutrality encourage collaborative development.

There’s an excellent discussion begun over the past few days on the value of foundations in the free and open source software (FOSS) world. It includes people calling into question the Apache Software Foundation’s role, promoting foundations, and discussing the broader role of FOSS foundations. I work for the Outercurve Foundation. Outercurve didn't evolve out of a long term project with an "Outercurve Way" of doing things.  As relative new comers on the scene, we've needed to be very clear on our value proposition and the value proposition of FOSS foundations in general.  I would argue that regardless of what any foundation represents to it's constituencies or members, foundations provide:

  • Legal Structure (e.g. IP management)
  • Business Operations (e.g. financial services, event/marcomm)
  • Technical Services (e.g. forges, code-signing)

Of those functions, the most "important" for FOSS project growth is legal structure.  We see wide variance in the different services offered and the funding models involved for the business operations and technical services across foundations (e.g. think the Apache Software Foundation versus the Eclipse Foundation), but what we all rigorously do is IP management and IP risk management.  We use a variety of different methodologies involving FOSS licenses, membership agreements, contribution agreements, and development process, but IP management is at the core of each FOSS foundation. The Outercurve Foundation specifically doesn't care which FOSS license, which forge, and what development methodology a project managed by us uses.  We care a great deal that the tools and forge and project practices match our IP management regime.   I think the reason that this is so important is because it defines a neutral legal space for corporations to collaborate around. While many individual developers are comfortable easily sharing software using FOSS licenses as social contracts, most corporate organizations live in a [rightly] more conservative legal climate and need the assurances of a well documented and understood IP process before they will assume the risk of use and participation in a FOSS project. A FOSS foundation’s brand provides the perception of IP cleanliness. That IP cleanliness and neutrality provided by foundations enables IP conservative corporations to contribute, participate, and use the FOSS projects managed by those foundations and this in turn leads to the next wave of growth in the project. A corporation is far more likely to contribute to a FOSS project held by a neutral non-profit, than it is to a project owned by another (possibly competing) corporation, or a project with poor IP management practices “in the wild”.   So I think foundations are very important as neutral non-profit collaboration spaces for corporations and we do that with well understood legal structure and IP management.  I think this will become more important over time.  I'm not saying FOSS projects can't grow and thrive outside a foundation, but I believe they will need a foundation's services at some point in their growth to take the next step in their evolution and success. Stephen O’Grady also discussed the extracted software model in a recent post:

But as concern about the risks of open source thaws and is offset by wider understanding of the benefits, it is probable that waves of new internally developed projects will be released as open source. The majority of which will generate little activity and interest. But from the volume, we might expect the next Git, Hadoop or Rails.

As many of those projects surface out of corporate initiatives, the role of FOSS foundations will only grow over time. Update: Tweeked language to better reflect Mike Milinkovitch's post promoting foundations as opposed to defending the ASF.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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