Governance, control, and how to actually influence an open source project

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A lot of groups fret about the governance and control of open source projects. Others tout their open, diversified, wide-ranging, and independent foundations as making them superior. People--and  companies--tend to be worried about making sure that they retain some type of influence over the future of an open source project that they are interested in. Groups go to incredible lengths to orchestrate governance that either allows them to retain what they perceive as control or permits sharing of that same perceived control with folks of their choosing.

This isn't to say that I don't think governance is important. I think governance can be an important part of a project, but also realize that it's only a small part of a functioning project. Things like trademarks and other forms of intellectual property might be held or managed by a governance body. (And for the record, I think that copyright assignment should be almost universally unacceptable for a free software project.) But more than likely, a governance body exists (at least ideally) to help contributors get things done. The more often a group has to approve actions for its contributors to take, the more often I think it has gone astray and is trying to assert control rather than empower.

So why are control and governance a sham in most open source projects? Because control doesn't really exist like that in open source.

Generally speaking, having a seat on a board or foundation doesn't give you real control in an open source project because the real value tends to be in the easily forkable code. So yes, you might control the trademark to Hudson, but that doesn't mean that Jenkins can't come along and easily replace you with identical functionality and a more vibrant community.

The people who have real control are the people doing the work. They have the real influence, and short of employing contributors, you have little real control. Want to know who has real control in an open source project? Don't look at the boards or foundations that supposedly guide a project. Look at the people contributing, and perhaps look at who employs those contributors. Want to have real control in an open source project? Contribute. Help drive the direction of the project by doing the work. That's how you acquire influence in open source.

David Nalley is an open source software contributor. He is currently largely contributing to the Fedora Project, and is or has worked in Ambassadors, marketing, Docs, infrastructure, packaging, and is currently serving a term as a member of the Fedora Board.

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