Open Advice/Building Bridges
When I started to work in Free Software I was struck by the perceived difference between the “community” and the “business” stakeholders in this field. The informal assertion often aired at the time essentially proposed that there were developers interested in hacking and there were commercial parties who would use their output in objectionable ways if not closely monitored. It was a generally baseless assumption, and almost entirely limited to parties who identified themselves as the community rather than those more aligned with business interests, but it was prevalent.
Despite being primarily associated with the community side of things, I resisted the concept that there were two inherently hostile parties facing each other down over the future of Free Software. It sounded too simple to frame the dynamics of contribution, use and support as the interplay between noble creators and devious freeloaders. Indeed, it sounded more like a situation where complexity, change and uncertainty had lead to the creation of simplistic narratives to provide comfort for parties moving out of their comfort zone. I could feel the tension in the air, I could hear the arguments at booths and in meetings, and I could observe the sharp comments or blowing off of steam at conferences. But what did it all mean?
Whether we were talking about Free Software project contribution, project management or license compliance, the relationships between stakeholders were often accompanied by assumptions, lack of communication and negative emotion. This in turn lead to greater complexity and a corresponding increase in the difficulty of making unified decisions or resolving issues. I was aware that one of the biggest challenges was how to build bridges between individuals, projects and businesses, a necessary step to ensure common understanding and cross-communication of the rules, norms and reasons behind the licenses and other formal measures to govern this field, but that in itself does not translate into knowing how to engage with the issue effectively.
This was at the tipping point when GPLv3 was being drafted, Linux-based technology was beginning to appear in all sorts of consumer electronics, and Free Software was at the brink of becoming mainstream. Change was in the air and business investment around major Free Software projects was spiking. Suddenly there were major corporation employees actually doing a lot of the difficult work, there was significant funding available for events, and a lot of the software stopped being about fun, and started to be about milestones, deliverables, quality assurance and usability.
This was probably a system shock to parties who had been doing Free Software for a long time. For much of its evolution Free Software was not just about technical exploration and perfection, but also social interaction. It provided a way for intelligent though occasionally awkward people to share a common interest, to challenge each other, and to cooperate inside carefully delineated and predictable lines. Like stamp collecting, train spotting or Star Trek, it was a place where detail-orientated people could converge, and it had the additional benefit of providing broader feel-good social benefits as an output. It was not where the original contributors had expected to encounter middle-management and output-orientated development focus. No wonder a few noses were out of joint.
And yet... Everything worked out fine. Free Software is everywhere, and appears to be in an almost unassailable position as a mainstream component of the Information Technology industry. Projects like the Linux kernel or the Apache server have continued to grow, to innovate and to attract new stakeholders, both commercial and non-commercial. The balance of power between individuals, projects and businesses changed, occasionally with conflict and disruption, but never at the cost of long-term cooperation or of undermining the core value of Free Software.
From my perspective in the legal field – which after all is merely a formal language that provides a context for interaction through mutually understood and enforceable rules – the tension in Free Software did not lie in the introduction of increased commercial activity, in the increased participation of company employees in projects, or in change itself. The real problem lay in the gap between a displaced previous elite and their newer, occasionally very different, fellow stakeholders.
The challenge was to create a level playing field where the different interests could co-exist with mutual respect. Free Software needed to become a place where information like the proper remit and obligations of a license or requirements for code submissions to a project could be obtained by any party at any time. Subjectivity and vagueness needed to take a backseat to allow the formation of more formalized transactions, which in turn act as an essential precursor for any large economic activity, especially in the context of an international or global community.
What had worked in the early days – be it the trust of a few parties or the common understanding reached by a similar group with similar interests – could no longer act as social or economic drivers for the future of the field. At times this seemed like an insurmountable barrier and that the tensions between the previous contributors to Free Software and new stakeholders must lead to a collapse of cooperation and perhaps of the progress made. But such a grim outcome would presuppose conditions that simply did not exist.
Free Software provided a lot of value to different people and organizations based on some very simple concepts like the freedom to use, modify, improve and share technology. These concepts allowed a great deal of flexibility, and as long as people recognized their value and continued to respect them, challenges over secondary items like project governance or license gray areas were – in the long run – pretty much irrelevant. The rest was mainly noise, the normal communication spike with all its trappings of drama that inevitably occurs when one social group is joined by another. The same applies whether we are talking about a fishing spot, a country welcoming immigrants (or not), or two businesses merging.
The changes in Free Software all looked a little confusing at the time, but essentially break down into three useful lessons that will be familiar to students of history or political science. Firstly, whenever there is an elite, it will seek to preserve its status and it will communicate the perceived challenge as a negative development in an attempt to undermine it. Secondly, despite the inherent tendency of any power base to be conservative, static engagement with a changing field will only result in moving the opportunity for improvement from existing parties to third parties. Finally, if something has value, then challenges in governance are unlikely to undermine that value, but instead will provide a method of refining both the governance mechanisms and the people in a position to apply them.
The development of Free Software as a mainstream technology saw increased professionalization in both the approach of developers and in the management of projects. It also saw greater respect for licenses on the part of individuals, projects and companies. This was no bad thing, and despite a few rocky moments along the way – you can take your pick from inter-community fighting, companies disregarding license terms or the upset caused by a move away from beer and t-shirt culture – we are left with a stronger, more coherent and more valuable field.
Shane Coughlan is an expert in communication methods and business development. He is best known for building bridges between commercial and non-commercial stakeholders in the technology sector. His professional accomplishments include establishing a legal department for the FSFE, the main NGO promoting Free Software in Europe, building a professional network of over 270 legal and technical experts across 27 countries, cofounding a binary code compliance tool project and aligning corporate and community interests to launch the first law review dedicated to Free/Open Source Software. Shane has extensive knowledge of Internet technologies, management best practice, community building and Free/Open Source Software.