James Governor's Monkchips

On Changing horses: Open Source Licenses, Foundations and The Software Freedom Conservancy

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As the waves come in

I was lucky enough to chat to Jason Huggins earlier last week, getting an update on Saucelabs, the commercial arm of (his) Selenium Project [related post here]. Needless to say the conversation ranged far and wide. One issue was open source foundation choices. Given the decision to “go commercial” and build a business around Selenium, the right partner was essential – why does an open source project need an open source foundation – because of all the boring crap involved in running an organisation, especially a non-profit, even more especially one connected to a profit-making business. That’s the thing about choosing an Apache or Eclipse license; you are also implicitly choosing an open source Foundation to work with you on a project.

But these days commercial open source businesses increasingly want the flexibility to choose, and change, a new license for commercial reasons. Thus, for example, our client Neo4J recently made the Community edition of its graph database available under the GPLv3.

And intriguingly Hugs decided to go with the frankly not so well known Software Freedom Conservancy as a foundation even though he is happy with Selenium’s Apache 2.0 license.

The reasoning was straightforward. For one thing- the new coolness moved there. GIT is now a Conservancy member… and if its good enough for Linus… [update: should have said- jQuery too!].

None of the Selenium contributors wanted to deal with the bureacracy of foundation overheads. One suggested the SFConservancy. What tipped the balance? Freedom to Leave. That’s right – part of the core SFConservancy pitch is the idea that you may prefer to back out of a license or foundation structure. Freedom To Leave is literally written into the SFConservancy charter.

All agreements between member projects and the Conservancy stipulate clearly that the member project can leave the Conservancy with a few months’ notice. Federal tax exemption law, though, states that projects must transfer their assets from the Conservancy in a way that is consistent with the Conservancy’s not-for-profit tax status — meaning the assets cannot be transferred to an individual or a for-profit entity. Generally, a project would either find another fiscal sponsor or form their own independent tax-exempt non-profit.

We fully expect that some Conservancy projects will ultimately wish to form their own non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations; that’s why we design our agreements with projects to allow them to leave to another 501(c)(3) organization. Typically, projects join Conservancy because the project leaders don’t want the burdens of running a non-profit themselves. Often, as projects grow, leaders get interested in the non-profit management and organizational side of the activities and are then prepared to take on the additional work themselves.

So Freedom To Leave swung it for the Selenium guys. But what does the Conservancy do?

  • Member Project Services
  • Tax-Deductible, Earmarked Donations
  • Asset Stewardship

    Conservancy can hold any assets for the project on its behalf. This includes copyrights, trademarks, domain names, physical computer equipment or anything that should be officially held in the name of the project. Member projects are not required that Conservancy hold all assets of a project. (For example, member projects are not required to assign copyrights to the Conservancy.) However, Conservancy can accommodate the needs of projects that want their assets under the control of a not-for-profit entity and exercised only for the public good.

  • Contract Negotiation and Execution
  • FLOSS Copyright License Enforcement
  • Fundraising Assistance
  • Avoid Non-Profit Administrivia
  • Leadership Mentoring, Advice and Guidance
  • Some Personal Liability Protection

All useful services then. In case you’re wondering I Italicised the line above on copyright because its such an important part of commercial open source business, as anyone that has watched the Jenkins Hudson mess can attest. Seems like SFConservancy may finally be hitting its stride. If the market wants to decouple the management of a non-profit with the choice of an open source license it will likely pick up even more business. I will be watching them more closely from now on.

From a disclosure point of view I should say the Eclipse Foundation and Apache Software Foundation are both RedMonk clients.

Special thanks to tibchris for the amazing photo, attribution only creative commons licensed on flickr. the horse may not be in midstream exactly, but i love the breaking wave…


  1. I just looked at the SFConservancy’s member project page. What an impressive list: JQuery, Samba, Twisted, PyPy,…

    1. yeah its a pretty good list. i should have listed them in the post, shouldn’t I? certainly jQuery is one of the most popular open source projects on the planet right now….

  2. […] On Changing horses: Open Source Licenses, Foundations and The Software Freedom Conservancy – James… Interesting article from James about choosing a service explicitly because it provides the freedom to leave. (tags: RedMonk freedom) […]

  3. Is Saucelabs’ move to the Software Freedom Conservancy predictive of a trend? Is the SFConservancy, like Github in the forge space, rising in popularity? Your citing the “coolness factor” caught my attention. Here at Black Duck we’ve been tracking language use, forge choices, cloud OSS projects and open source rookies. Project leads’ choice of foundation is yet another factor to consider in “cool trending.”

    You report that: “The reasoning was straightforward. For one thing- the new coolness moved there. GIT is now a Conservancy member… and if it’s good enough for Linus…” And a driving factor for projects looking for all the help that foundations can offer may be the SFConservancy’s “Freedom to Leave” policy. Will this policy, and the number of projects joining the SFConservancy because of it, take it to the next level among the better-known foundations? What about the relationship with Git and Github?

    How cool is Github? We’re tracking cool languages, the dynamic languages (including JavaScript, Ruby, Python and PHP) and beginning to track where projects using those languages are hosted. An early query shows that Github hosts three times the number of JavaScript projects as SourceForge. With this correlation, Github qualifies as “cool.” The SFConvervancy’s association with Github through Git will likely be positive factor for project leads when considering foundation choices.

    Will the rising popularity of SFConservancy make license choice less of a factor, decoupling that choice from project management decisions? Great question. We’ll want to track that.

    1. Phil Marshall – dude, that is superhelpful AWESOME commentary. will be interesting to see if there is any pull through re GitHub.

  4. Yeah, JQuery is definitely worth mentioning (just saw your update). As much as I love git and think that it and GitHub are transformative, JQuery is more widely known, at least for now.

    1. yeah – widespread adoption and pace. jQuery is a phenomemon.

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