Transparency and Privacy

Beautiful WindowOne of the keys to a successful open source community is the equality of every participant. An community that is open-by-rule will have strong values around transparency as well as respecting its participants privacy and independence. Such a community will also be unlikely to have a copyright assignment benefiting a commercial party. Here’s why.

Synchronization of Interest

An open source community arises from the synchronization of the individual interest of many parties. Each person:

  • comes to the community at their own (or their employer’s) expense,
  • seeks to derive from the commons at its heart software that fulfils their individual interest and
  • freely brings with them their own abilities and contributions.

No-one is owed a living by anyone else – communities do not have business models, only the participants gathering in them do. Participants with a business interest in the code express that interest elsewhere, if it’s a truly open community.

To create an environment where people are willing to synchronize their individual interests and collaborate over code, there has to be transparency. But that doesn’t have to extend to the lives of the participants themselves. Your motivations for being involved in the community are of no relevance to my life because our relationship in the community depends on code. The code, the community and how they interact are transparent, but motivations for participating in it are opaque. My reasons are up to me alone and yours up to you. They’re private and irrelevant because the code speaks for itself. And by implication, you have no right to force acceptance of your business model on me.

Private Motivations, Transparent Community

Thus in a healthy open source community, I’m free to maintain my privacy around my motivations and how I’m funding my involvement if I wish. On the other hand, I’m able to work in an environment of transparency where all the code is known, all its origins are known, all its defects are potentially known.

That combination of transparency with privacy is, in my opinion, a primary characteristic of an open-by-rule open source community. Communities without the rule “if it didn’t happen as a matter of open record, it didn’t happen” are closed, regardless of the software license. Open source is about transparency at the community level but also about the privacy of the individuals involved.

The interface between the two is where a formal community/contribution agreement is relevant. To maintain trust, enable development transparency and permit individual privacy, it’s reasonable to ask every participant to sign an agreement promising to stick to community norms, especially with respect to the originality of contributions and the possibility that they are associated with parallel-filed patents.

No Exclusivity

But it’s not reasonable to give any one participant the exclusive advantage of aggregated copyright for them to use privately. Doing so breaches the transparency-privacy boundary, damages trust by enabling opaque behaviour with the community commons and introduces private business-model reasoning into the community where it doesn’t belong.

I’ve heard arguments such as “we have to be able to make a profit” or “we contributed the original code” to justify copyright assignments, but these are personal not community arguments. Your need for profit is yours, not the community’s, and if you didn’t have it nailed before you started the community and irreversibly licensed the code under an OSI-approved license, that’s your problem.

Your business need is no reason for me to surrender my copyright to you, so please don’t demand it. There is no amount of contribution on your part that permits you to demand anything from me – your rights are not proportional to your contribution in an open source community.

This isn’t just a matter of philosophy – it’s practical too. In The Role of Participation Architecture in Growing Sponsored Open Source Communities, West & O’Mahony make clear that if you’re a company trying to start an open source community, trying to maintain exclusivity will harm the outcome.  Your attempt at control will either result in the failure of the community to grow as you hope, or ultimately in the community you create forking and working around you.

[Expanded from a comment I made in FLOSS Weekly 39.]

4 Responses

  1. I can see both sides on this one.

    Yes, a true open source project should have any funds from commerce going back into the pot to help fund the project itself; however, if that isn’t a foundation but an actual company (who wrote the original program) then that is not necessarily bad.

    Several projects (noticably MySQL and Mozilla) went down the path of reserving a secondary licensing path (allowing use of the open source resources in a closed source product) and provided that doesn’t lead to a two tier “open core” abomination, why not? The sale of commercial use rights to a third party in no way lessens the amount a contributor gets from being able to use a more stable and feature-rich solution, other than some vague feeling that “hey, I could have made money from that!”

  2. I think the bottom line here is – vote with your feet.

    If a project with a closed-source profit branch isn’t acceptable to you, don’t use it – find a different project to contribute to, or if there isn’t one, start your own; in most cases, you can even fork the existing one to save you the time and trouble of making your own code base from scratch. Just don’t act too hurt if someone else does the same to your project, a few years down the line, because they didn’t like the way you ran it.

    What you can’t do is join a community, and then hope that some vague force from outside will cause that community to better comply to the ideal you have for it – it might happen, but on the whole, it is unlikely to.

  3. [...] Transparency and Privacy One of the keys to a successful open source community is the equality of every participant. An community that is open-by-rule will have strong values around transparency as well as respecting its participants privacy and independence. Such a community will also be unlikely to have a copyright assignment benefiting a commercial party. Here’s why. [...]

  4. [...] Wild Webmink: Transparency and Privacy [...]

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