Safeguarding the open source model amidst big tech involvement

Dima Lazerka, co-founder of VictoriaMetrics, discusses how the open source model community can be safeguarded amidst increasing big tech involvement

Free and open source software (FOSS) is an integral part of most of the tech we now use on a daily basis. Originally, it was developed by volunteer developers, however in the last few years there’s been an uptake in the active role of big corporations in the open source model. Deals for Red Hat, Github and Microsoft are the most well-known, but big tech providers across the globe are either incorporating open source into their stacks, or releasing internal technology to the public, such as Spotify open-sourcing Backstage.

However, as big tech becomes increasingly involved in open source, developers have voiced concern about its engagement as it could jeopardise the original ethos and values of the community. While debate is likely to rage on about whether big tech’s involvement is a help or hindrance, open source projects need to be able to maintain freedom of choice.

Fears around big tech involvement

Big tech has engaged with the open source model mainly by either assigning employees to contribute to existing open source projects, or open-sourcing their own code both to allow the community to utilise it and to help maintain it. Organisations are making open source part of their business model and therefore, have started acquiring an array of open source companies.

Research of 5,800 individuals surveyed by cloud provider DigitalOcean found Google, IBM (including Red Hat) and Microsoft were at the top of a list of 11 companies in terms of open source community citizenship. However, 60 per cent of the surveyed individuals stated they worry about the corporations’ intentions when acquiring or engaging with open source, and 56 per cent mentioned restrictive licences’ role in creating an unfair competitive advantage.

The fact that open source has been made more “corporate” has caused an array of concerns. For starters, acquisitions of open source could potentially result in a crowding out of volunteer developers, jeopardising the future of the open source community. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing as long as big tech’s involvement strengthens the community, open source developers should be able to successfully build their projects without intervention if they so choose.

Open source was founded on a sense of community and collaboration. If developers become disillusioned with these principles, it could have a knock on effect for the rest of the community. Therefore, we must carefully evaluate how to go about building the future of open source communities.

Safeguarding open source through licensing and innovation

Two of the main techniques to safeguard open source and its community are through smart licensing tactics and constant innovation. The first technique is to simply switch the project licence from an open source licence to a more restrictive licence. There are two specific licences that can be used to protect against clouds and corporations: AGPL-3 and SSPL — specifically developed by the likes of MongoDB, Elastic and Grafana to protect themselves from AWS.

For instance, while many projects shifted away from GPL-style licences towards more permissive forms of licensing, under GPL, contributors are required to make their code available to the open source community; the so-called “copyleft”. This traditional licensing style helps to create a more open, transparent ecosystem.

Another way in which open source can safeguard its future is through smart innovations. Constantly innovating in order to satisfy users should be the way forward for the evolution of open source projects and solutions. This would enable companies to maintain their competitive edge and keep up with technological trends. The beauty of open source is that it is made up of a large ecosystem of innovators in itself, and rather than competing for knowledge, resources are shared for others to benefit from and keep innovating. This has to remain integral to FOSS as it has been the key driver of innovation and growth for FOSS organisations since the beginning.

Ultimately, big tech involvement is not necessarily harmful to the FOSS community, it could actually help it reach its full potential if precautions are taken and the freedom of open source developers is safeguarded and prioritised.

Written by Dima Lazerka, co-founder of VictoriaMetrics


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