On Corporate Ownership of Open Source

Can companies be more than just participants?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. This isn’t about one project or one company or one instance of poor management or leadership. This is about the simple economic conditions we find in open source and the question I’ve continued to ask myself over and over again is, can any company be trusted with the ownership of a community driven open source project? And the answer I’ve finally come to. No.

The Park

Let’s imagine a block of land in your neighborhood owned by the city. The city says the residents are free to build a park there but will have to do so with their own money and resources.

Over time different people from the neighborhood pitch in with money and elbow grease and build a really great park. Even though only a handful of people put in the effort to build and maintain this park the entire neighborhood benefits from using it. Everyone’s property value rises a little, being that their houses are now close to such a great park.

Why did neighbors participate in building the park? They don’t own the park, but they clearly benefit from having the park. None of them could have built the park on their own, so they worked together. They don’t mind that their other neighbors benefit from their work, instead they have a sense of pride watching their neighbors use the swings and slides they built.

But what if this block of land the park has been built on wasn’t given to them for use by the city and instead was owned by a company. What if the company said “You can use this land and the park will be open to the public but we’ll own the land and what is built on it.”

The same incentives apply for the park to be built. Neighbors still want a park, it’ll still increase the value of their property, and so they still pitch in and build the park. The company even pitches in and helps with some of the build out because they share the same incentives as the neighbors for the park to be built.

A few years pass and there is an active community maintaining the park. But the incentives have changed for the company.

While they could see clear benefit working with this community to build the park what is their incentive to continue to maintain it? They might like the nice articles written about their park, but that isn’t enough to justify being as involved as the community, and the park, would need them to be.

Meanwhile, the neighbors that are maintaining and wish to improve the park become more and more frustrated with the owner. They’ve done all the work, they feel as though the park is theirs and they should be able to do what they need. The neighbors who just use the park every day but don’t work to maintain it dislike the atmosphere this drama is adding when they use the park and want everyone to just shut up.

Now that the relationship between the park maintainers and the owning company has mostly dissolved, maintaining the relationship no longer plays in to the incentives of the company. They might take over the park on weekends and charge admission while a rock band plays to pull in some money and as these people pay admission the maintainers who once would have been proud to watch someone swing on the swing they built are infuriated that their swing is being capitalized without their consent.

Now the company is portraying itself as an expert in park building, offering its services to other richer towns. When the maintainers attempt to build another park they are told they can’t name it anything similar to the park they previously built because it has been trademarked. When they try to build a similar swing to the one they had previously built they are told that the design has been patented. And every time the park builders and maintainers get mad their neighbors shout at them to keep it down, they’re trying to use the swing.

Or maybe the company never does any of these things. Maybe they do a great job working with the maintainers and are being a good participant but they forget to make any money and are sold for parts to another company who decides to extract value from the park.

Community and the Commons

In a community the participants usually have similar motivations and incentives. By participating and contributing to the project they gain more value than they put in to the project but at the same time the project gains even more value than any individual participant. The key to success in an open source ecosystem is to incentivize the creation of widely accessible common value.

However, if a company owns the project in any way (trademark, website, project governance) there is an incentive for them to extract value from the project rather than create it. At first that incentive is never great enough to act upon but I am now convinced that, given enough time, the temptation is too great and it will eventually happen. I find this scenario inevitable and have recently dedicated myself to investing in commons that aren’t owned by any particular company.

You hate companies, you’re a communist!

The obvious question becomes “what is a company’s role in open source?” to which the answer is “a participant.”

Companies can have a positive role in open source when they share the incentives of the other participants. In fact, I find it best when a company has a closed source proprietary product that relies on an open source project they are investing in. In the park analogy that would be like owning the biggest house in the neighborhood right next to the park. As long as they don’t own the park they share the same incentives as all the other neighbors, maybe even more so.

I have very easy and healthy relationships with companies who participate in open source. For a while, I was attempting to maintain and repair relationships with owners but I’ve finally given up. Perhaps others can succeed in those kinds of negotiations but I have a hard time dealing with the kind of entitlement owners have and I don’t like it when people threaten to sue me which I’ve found is a relatively common response.

Instead, I’ve resolved to work on growing the community and improving the commons. We can create alternatives where necessary and put new investment in to projects not owned by companies.