As part of an interview in
LWN, Mark Shuttleworth is quoted as wanting the community to view the use of contribution licensing agreements (CLAs) as a necessary prerequisite for open source growth and the refusal by others to donate their work under them as a barrier to commercial success. He implies that the use of a CLA by Sun for OpenOffice.org was a good thing. Mark is also quoted accusing The Document Foundation (TDF) of somehow destroying OpenOffice.org (OO.o) because of its decision to fork rather than contribute changes upstream under the CLA. But I'd suggest a different view of both matters.
[ Disclosures: Having been directly involved while at Sun in some
of the events I discuss, I should say that everything recounted here is a
matter of public record. While I'd love to explain some of the events at
greater length, I'm not free to do so - such is the penalty of employment
contracts. Suffice to say that just because a company takes certain
actions, it doesn't mean everyone agrees with them, even senior people. I
should also disclose that I was honored to be granted membership in TDF
recently, although I'm not speaking on their official behalf here. ]
My experience of CLAs has led me to conclude that they prevent competitors
from collaborating over a code base. The result is that any project which
can only be monetized in its own right rather than as a part of a greater
collective work will have a single commercial contributor if a CLA is in
place. Mark would like us all to accept contributor agreements so that a
legacy business model based on artificial scarcity can be used to make a
profit that would otherwise be unavailable without the unrewarded donation
of the work of others - who are not permitted the same opportunity. I've covered this in greater detail in my article "Transparency and Privacy".
While pragmatically there may be isolated circumstances under which CLAs
are the lesser of evils, their role in OO.o has contributed more to its demise than offered it hope. By having a CLA for OpenOffice.org, Sun guaranteed that core contributions by others would be marginal and that Sun would have to invest the vast majority of the money in its development. That was a knowing, deliberate choice made in support of the StarOffice business models.
Despite that, others did work on the code - a testimony to the importance of OO.o. The most significant community work was localization, and the importance of the work done by the many teams globally making OpenOffice.org work for them can't be overstated. In the core code, Novell worked inside the community, accepting the premise Mark is asserting and contributing significant value in small quantities over an extended period. Smaller contributions came from Red Hat and others. IBM worked outside the community, developing the early version of Symphony, contributing nothing back to the OO.o community, and thus preventing any network effect from being accelerated by their work.
Sun used the aggregated copyright in 2005 to modernize the licensing arrangements for OO.o, closing the dual-license loophole IBM had been using to avoid contribution. Some (me included) hoped this would bring IBM into the community, but instead Sun also used the aggregated copyright to allow IBM to continue Symphony development outside the community rather than under the CLA. Stung by this rejection of transparent community development - and in distaste at proprietary deals rather than public licensing driving contribution - Novell started to bulk up the Go-OO fork, by ceasing to give their contributions back. This all happened long before the Oracle acquisition.
The act of creating The Document Foundation and its LibreOffice project did no demonstrable harm to Oracle's business. There is no new commercial competition to Oracle Open Office (their commercial edition of OO.o) arising from LibreOffice. No contributions that Oracle valued were ended by its creation. Oracle's ability to continue development of the code was in no way impaired. Oracle's decision appears to be simply that, after a year of evaluation, the profit to be made from developing Oracle Open Office and Oracle Cloud Office did not justify the salaries of over 100 senior developers working on them both. Suggesting that TDF was in some way to blame for a hard-headed business decision that seemed inevitable from the day Oracle's acquisition of Sun was announced is at best disingenuous.
So what's left of the OpenOffice.org community now? Almost all of the people who worked on it outside of Sun/Oracle have joined together to create the Document Foundation. As far as I can tell all that's left of OO.o is the project shell, with no development work in progress because Oracle has now stood down all the staff it had working on the project, plus one or two voices trying desperately to make us believe they still have some authority to comment because they used to be involved with it.
The CLA bears a great deal of responsibility for this situation, having kept the cost of development high for Sun/Oracle and prevented otherwise willing contributors from fully engaging. There is one hope left from it though. Because of the CLA, Oracle is free to choose to donate the whole of OO.o to The Document Foundation where it can be managed by the diverse and capable community that's gathered there. If they don't do that they probably need to change the license to a weak copyleft license - the new Mozilla Public License v2 would be perfect - to allow IBM to join the main community. It's my sincere hope that they will finally put the CLA to a good use and allow it to reunite the community it has divided for so long.
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