Who owns open source projects? People or companies?

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This article was written by Martin Traverso, creator of Presto y Trino, CTO of Starburst.

Open source software intersects with almost every technology that business leaders rely on to run their organizations. It brings innovation, cost savings, and the power of the community to help organizations stay ahead of technological advancements. In fact, some experts attribute the massive growth of the Internet in the last 30 years to open source, which also explains why venture capital investment in open source continues to rise.

However, there is a persistent debate when it comes to the owner of open source projects: the people who create the projects or the companies that “sponsor” them. This ownership debate it has even spawned some recent battles around open source licensing. I strongly believe that open source projects belong to the people behind the project, not the company. It is about much more than the code and intellectual property itself, it is about the community and the people whose passion drives the success of a project. Open source projects depend on the community to survive. This is how innovation happens. This is how creators are born. Without this sense of ownership and pride, open source communities and project leaders would not exist.

While companies often employ the creators of open source projects and deserve credit for giving these people the freedom to create groundbreaking innovations, those projects tend to follow people even after they leave the company. For example, several successful open source projects forked the code to follow the project creators and the communities they serve, including MariaDB, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and others. In fact, in most cases, these evolutions often outperform the original projects due to the unwavering following of their community. Open source project leaders must deliver on their promises and prioritize the community to be successful.

Investment in open source

Open source investment activity has remained high since it became a mainstream conversation. with Red Hat in 1999. In fact, venture capital investments They continue to be strong at companies like Confluent, Cockroach Labs, and Neo4J, to name a few. As new projects come to market, the growth and influence of these open source communities will continue to attract investors’ attention.

The VC community has long been linked to the open source community and will continue to fund companies driving new open source projects. The open source model has evolved over the years, but investors no longer wonder how open source companies will make money. As organizations adopt and scale open source technologies, their demands for professional services and enterprise-grade offerings often grow exponentially. The most common questions for investors today focus on who owns the project and how they will grow the community around them.

Know when “forklift”

You can’t talk about open source project property without bringing out the fork term, which refers to a division in the code of a project. Although forks have been around since the dawn of open source software, they are often referred to as negatives. In my previous experience and roles, when we were unable to open the projects we were working on, we had trouble dealing with lost work that was not returned to the community for further innovation.

When I worked hand-in-hand with my co-creators Dain Sundstrom, David Phillips, and Eric Hwang on Facebook on the Presto project, an open source query engine for accessing and analyzing distributed data, we required it to be open source. I didn’t want the job to get lost. We wanted to create a solution that would benefit and influence the industry as a whole, and ultimately we recognized the benefit of having a more diverse group of people and companies involved. When the creators of Presto left Facebook, the community followed us and we continued the project with a new name, Trill. It was yet another test point of the critical importance and power of the community. We were able to continue with the vision of a truly community driven and openly governed open source project. When you have a strong community of users and believers, they will support your projects and will likely follow you to new ones.

Although one could call Trino’s birth a fork, I like to describe it more accurately as a “forklift” operation where the creators, the code, and the community collectively moved and brought the community with them. Ultimately, if open source creators feel the need to go to ensure that the project can be truly open source, community driven, and continue to serve broader use cases, it is unfortunately time to consider making a forklift. In an ideal scenario, creators will anticipate potential challenges, pivot, and avoid the forklift altogether. I share this story to help show the evolution of open source software and highlight the underlying importance of community and true ownership in any open source project.

The role of open source in future innovations

There would probably be fewer developers in the world if it weren’t for open source. Not all developers can afford to be part of a certain company; There are many innovations happening outside of companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, and open source is the right place for it. Without open source, self-taught or younger developers would not have the same access to resources for learning to code, developing software, and experimenting with new ideas. Ultimately, open source projects are all about the passion and commitment of people and the community. When we start treating the people behind projects with the respect they deserve, we will continue to see more innovation, new ideas, and pride coming out of the open source community.

Martin is the co-creator of Presto and the co-founder and CTO of Starburst. Martin created Presto (now Trill) as a software engineer at Facebook, where he led the Presto development team. Martin joined Facebook in 2012 when, at the time, Hive was the de facto platform for SQL analysis on Facebook. Seeing the need for quick interactive SQL analysis, Martin and 3 other engineers worked to create what became Presto. In the spring of 2013, Martin and the team released Presto into production on Facebook, where it was then made open source in the fall of 2013. Since then, Presto has gained wide adoption both internal and external to Facebook. When Martin and his co-creators left Facebook in 2018, they “took” their project into what became known as PrestoSQL, which has since become Trill.


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