Last week I was speaking at the SFSCon 2013 in Bolzano-Bozen in South Tyrol, Italy. This event was a great moment as it connects both the local players of Free and Open Source Software and the boader FOSS scene, while the relative seclusion of the Tyrolean mountains and – we should not forget this- the formidable hospitality of our guests- the TIS park and the South Tyrol Province.
This year we had a workshop dedicated to LibreOffice migrations inside the public sector and I spoke about what was going on in France. I was however reminded of a very important notion during my various conversations with the audience. Free Software licences pass on several rights to the users. But these rights or freedoms, while essential, do not mandate how a Free Software project community should work. If anything, that would be quite out of topic and perhaps going against the very spirit of Software Freedom. Among these freedoms, two are implied that are of particular importance but often overlooked in regard of Free Software development projects: the right to fork and the right -as a user- to leave the software or the vendor/supplier who is providing you support and services on the FOSS stack in question.
The right to fork is a well known, yet sometimes not so well accepted right. It is however one of the most fundamental freedom, as it is the freedom to exert its very own liberty with respect to the code: leaving, and starting anew. The right to leave or to avoid vendor capture seems less controversial but I’d be tempted to say that it is perhaps a not so well protected freedom. Many suppliers will leave grey areas just aside FOSS stacks where they can “capture” the customer, but then there are others who don’t.
What happens, however, when organizations such as public sector entities decide to join a project and not rely entirely or exclusively on suppliers to support their migration and use of a specific Free Software might end up being quite different. Joining a Free Software community means investing resources (and by resources I mean anything from developers to money) and through this becoming a contributor to the project. Becoming a contributor does not change the freedoms that have been passed on to you through the software licence. It means however that you become a stakeholder of the project. Pieter Hintjens uses the nice term “remix” to express anything you can do with code that is licensed under a Free Software license.
As a stakeholder you are not only free to remix -anybody could do this- you’re also taking a “stake” in the project, and your stake is only as real as the influence you may exert on the project as a contributor. Because of this, true FOSS communities, communities whose independence is real, work because of the existence of multiple stakeholders. They belong to no one in particular, but the project itself, belongs to everyone.
The next question of course would be to ask what are the projects that I believe have no real stakeholders besides the major player contributing in them . For instance, are “benevolent dictators” or a Linux distribution such as the Fedora project communities that are only bound to one player and therefore let no stakeholders in, thus failing to achieve a real, functional community? Of course they aren’t. Stakeholders can be measured in terms of governance, but it’s how the contributions of other parties are integrated that ultimately becomes the final criteria. At the end of the day, it’s what you do in a community that matters, not how many fans you’ve made.