The free and open source community is in a deeper state of introspection than at any time in its history. We are thinking through and having conversations about “sustainable business models” and the rise of “as a service” behemoths in AWS, Google and Microsoft. We are asking ourselves if ethics have a place in our governance and licensing models. We are questioning the fundamental values and ideas of the movement itself.
Since the term “Open Source” was first adopted in 1997, it has become the dominant software development model around the world. Back then, it was a cutting-edge idea - participating in open source was a radical act. Simply participating in it required a philosophical background. Today, you can actively participate in Open Source without any background at all in its philosophy. Open Source is in the water for the new generation of software developers.
Along with the rise in open source development, the number of open source companies has also skyrocketed. Consulting companies, service providers, managed services, and venture-backed startups abound. This influx of capital into the production of open source software fuels our growth. Open Source is eating the world not only because the Bazaar is better for development. It is good business.
This business often happens as direct product revenue–selling open source products to customers. More frequently, it happens when open source software is one component enabling a business to generate revenue. This massive influx of capital, on both sides of the equation, raises interesting questions. Can open source software at this scale exist without businesses funding it? Are we comfortable with how it is used? Where does the community begin and end? Who can take part in the community, how, and why? Who can profit from the software, and how?
35 years have passed since Richard Stallman introduced us to the idea of Free Software. 20 years since the dawn of the Open Source era at Netscape. Why are we building open source software in the first place? What is it good for? Who does it serve? How do we ensure that, no matter what happens, or who participates in our community, that the work we do serves us all? It is time to reassess our fundamental principles.
This is my attempt to start that conversation in earnest. I believe the path forward requires a restatement of our fundamental principles and goals. It leads to a new, intentional, sustainable model for designing our open source communities. It embraces the existence of capital in the system. It reconciles the existence of open source projects with open source products. It is inclusive of everyone who wants to participate.
The result is the creation of the Sustainable Free and Open Source Community (SFOSC) project. There are three parts. The first is the “Principles” - a list of requirements for a sustainable free and open source community. The second is a set of “Community Social Contracts”, the number of which should grow over time. These are explicit social contracts that all participants can agree to and understand. Think of it like Creative Commons, but for community agreements. This document is the last piece - it is the explanation of how I arrived at the beginning of this journey. My hope is that it provides a baseline of knowledge for future collaboration, in the open, as a community. Together, we will evolve the principles, publish many social contracts, and can talk about the trade-offs we make in choosing one contract over the other.
We’ll begin with a statement of my own background and motivations. I want my own biases to be as clear as possible, so they can be challenged as we build on these ideas together. The rest is an explanation of the model and analysis I used to arrive at the “Principles”. I look forward to refining these principles with you, and using them to develop clear social contracts. I’m excited to explore how we can build sustainable communities together.