Open Source Foundations vs. Corporate-Run Projects

Is an Open Source Foundation Necessary for a Project?

I came across an interesting paper, “The Economic Case for Open Source Foundations” by Dirk Riehle, a professor at Freidrich-Alexander-University of Erlandgen-Nurnberg at and thought others may be interested in this as well. The main thesis of this paper revolves around these points:

  • Foundations serve as the steward of the projects under its responsibility providing  “the financial backing and legal certainty, making the survival of the software less dependent on the individuals who started it”
  • Community open source (foundations) are different than single-vendor open source (1 firm builds the software) as “single-vendor commercial open-source except direct revenue from selling the software and services for it.”
  • “Several economic reasons why software firms join and support foundations to develop community open source:”
    • Cost savings for products
    • Increased revenue and sales from complementary products
    • Grow addressable market

There are currently many open source projects that are run via a foundation as well as others run by a single corporation. I believe that both methods of running a project work and neither are superior. For example, a foundation allows the corporate community to share not just resources but also money to help sustain the project. A single corporate open source project is funded by a single source; however the contributing companies that join in the project establish themselves as significant stakeholders in the project as they release products for and based on the open source solution.  Just because these companies don’t financially back the project, doesn’t mean they have any less commitment. In fact, they create significant pressure on the parent organization to properly run the community or they can fork the project at any time and recruit other partners to join their efforts. I believe this flexibility gives them more control over a project than simply writing a check and being trapped in a foundation project.

This paper clearly calls out the basic premise that having corporations come together to jointly create a single open source platform to base solutions on is economically superior than each company working on their own proprietary version of a platform. This idea is clearly demonstrated with such open source projects as, Apache, Eclipse, KDE, and GNOME.  The paper details the benefits of sharing development expense and creating momentum to expand a given market. I am in complete agreement with all these ideas but have one question that I don’t see a clear answer to – why does the community have to be run as a foundation and not owned by a single corporation?

Of course, people will point out what has happened with Oracle purchasing Sun Microsystems and issues around some of the open source projects involved in that transaction. In the case of Open Office, I can still get to the product and all I notice is the logo change from Sun to Oracle on the bottom; however a large group of developers was unhappy with many aspects of Oracle and have forked the project to create a new product, LibreOffice, while also forming a foundation, The Document Foundation, to oversee the new project. In this case we have both a single corporation running an open source project as well as a foundation building competing open source solutions. Both projects are moving forward and consumers are the winners as competition is always beneficial and the format of the project management (single corporation or foundation) is irrelevant.

What do you think? Are foundations really better than single corporations at running large, multi-corporation open source projects? Does it really matter who an open source project is manged as long as the software continues to move forward? I am interested in your thoughts...

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