Guest Post: The Rise of Open Source Software Foundations

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 21, 2010

What do the Linux Foundation, Free Software Foundation, and Apache Project all have in common? They provide a cover for businesses and projects that want to use open source software and contribute to the FOSS community without the risk of stepping on legal landmines or giving up a competitive advantage.

In today’s guest post, Stephen Wallli, technical director at Outercurve Foundation, takes an in-depth look at the variety of benefits opens source software foundations have to offer and why companies should give serious thought to joining one.

The Rise of Open Source Software Foundations

by Stephen Walli, technical director, Outercurve Foundation

Well-run open source software projects remain one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to develop software by enabling a shared cost of development while providing an open framework for innovation. The abundance of Web-enabled bandwidth available today has broken down traditional barriers, creating a nearly frictionless environment in which software development teams and organizations can collaborate. Unfortunately, a number of barriers still remain that hinder the development and contribution flow into projects run by corporations.

* Corporations are often uncomfortable supporting the liability risk of running their own open source project(s).

* It is sometimes difficult for a project to grow its contributing community because there's a perception that external contributors are giving up their work to a for-profit company regardless of the OSI-approved license associated with the project.

* Other external companies interested in using an open source project in their products face concerns over IP provenance and ownership.

* For participants new to the open source software world, doing the "right" thing with respect to licensing, copyrights, contributions, IP management and related software development practices is sometimes complex. Even knowing the right question to ask can be difficult.

Open source software foundations solve these problems. A foundation absorbs the liability risk as holder of the software IP while acting as a neutral owner for the software, so competitors in an industry can contribute to the common pool of software without fearing any one player is gaining a competitive advantage. (The Linux Foundation provides an excellent example of this practice.) By running a clean IP management process for contributions, foundations make it easier for companies to have confidence when they use software developed under an open source software foundation -- there is a clear provenance audit trail.

Open source software foundations also provide experience and expertise to help organize collaborative software development projects. Recent observations and recommendations by Henrik Ingo, an experienced free software advocate, point out there are nine open source projects that are significantly larger than other such projects by an order of magnitude, and that all of them are governed by a non-profit foundation. Not a single vendor-run project has come close to this in size.

The original open source software foundation was the Free Software Foundation (FSF), formed in 1985. It was based around the principles of software freedom, acted as a platform for the General Public License (GPL), and put in place one of the first IP assignment processes to help free-software projects better manage their software IP. Over the ensuing decades, the FSF has evolved the GPL to account for evolving technology needs and software freedom concerns, updating the license in 1991 (GPLv2) and again in 2007 (GPLv3).

Both the Apache Project and the Eclipse Project evolved to form foundations around their projects to provide better software IP licensing and handling practices. The Apache Project started in 1991 with the Apache Software License that leaned heavily on the academic roots of the Berkeley and MIT Athena licenses for liberally sharing software. By the end of the decade, the Apache Project evolved the license (ASL 2.0) and formed the Apache Software Foundation (ASF).

Likewise, the Eclipse Project started in 2001 when IBM published a large body of software for Java developer tools using the IBM Public License. Within a few years, they evolved the license (Common Public License) and formed the Eclipse Foundation to hold the software property. The Eclipse Foundation continues to evolve its licensing and IP management practices, most recently releasing the Java developer tools under the Eclipse Public License (2009).

The Outercurve Foundation is the most recent foundation formed in the open source software world. It brings together the benefits of the previously mentioned foundations; however it was deliberately organized to be technology, license and platform agnostic. This allows projects that want the coverage of a foundation, but do not necessarily fit with the technology base, license, or development process of other existing foundations, to have a safe haven. It also saves companies and projects the costs of starting a foundation from scratch -- an expensive ordeal requiring a lot of expertise to avoid costly mistakes.

Collaboratively developed software shared under liberal open source licenses continues to provide an enormous productivity boost for developers. Gartner analyst Mark Driver said recently “…having [a] policy against open source was both impractical and places you at a competitive disadvantage…”.

The rise of open source software foundations provides a great opportunity for organizations to contribute and develop their own projects without triggering unnecessary concerns. Existing foundations provide a wealth of software solutions and building blocks. Organizations (and their developers) should get involved today.