Who owns open source projects? People or companies?

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

Open source software intersects with just about 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 on the cutting edge of technology advancements. In fact, some experts attribute the massive growth of the internet over the past 30 years to open source, which also explains why venture capital investment in open source continues to rise.

However, there is one lingering debate when it comes to the owner of open source projects — the people who create the projects or the companies who “sponsor” them. This ownership debate has even led to some recent battles around open source licensing. I’m a firm believer that open source projects belong to the people behind the project, not the company. It’s about so much more than the code and IP itself, it’s about the community and the people whose passion fuels a project’s success. Open source projects rely on the community in order to survive. This is how innovation happens. It’s how creators are born. Without this sense of ownership and pride, open source communities and project leaders wouldn’t exist.

While companies often employ the creators of open source projects and do deserve credit for giving these individuals the freedom to build breakthrough innovations, those projects tend to follow the people even after they leave the company. For instance, several successful open source projects forked the code to follow the project’s creators and the communities they serve, including MariaDB, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and others. In fact, in most cases, these evolutions often overtake the original projects due to the unwavering following of their community. Open source project leaders need to deliver on their promises and prioritize the community to succeed.

Investment in open source

Open source investment activity has remained high since it became a mainstream conversation with Red Hat back in 1999. In fact, venture capital investments continue to be strong in 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 the attention of investors.

The VC community has long been linked to the open source community and will continue to fund the companies pushing new open source projects forward. The open source model has evolved through the years, but investors no longer question 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 more common questions for today’s investors center around who owns the project and how will they grow the community around it.

Knowing when to “forklift”

You can’t talk about open source project ownership without bringing up the fork term, which refers to a split in the code of a project. Although forks have been around since the dawn of open source software, they’re often referred to as negative. In my previous experience and roles, when we weren’t able to open source the projects we worked on, we struggled to deal with the lost work that wasn’t given back to the community for further innovation.

When I worked hand-in-hand with my co-creators Dain Sundstrom, David Phillips, and Eric Hwang at Facebook on the Presto project, an open source query engine for accessing and analyzing distributed data, we required it to be open source — we didn’t want the work to be lost. We wanted to create a solution that would benefit and influence the larger industry, and finally, 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 under a new name, Trino. It was yet another proof point in the critical importance and power of the community. We were able to continue the vision of a truly community-driven and openly governed open source project. When you have a strong community of users and believers, they’ll support your projects and likely follow you to new ones.

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

The role open source plays in future innovations

There would likely be fewer developers in the world if not for open source. Not all developers have the luxury of being part of a certain company — there’s a lot of innovation that happens outside of companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook and open source is the place for that. Without open source, self-taught or more junior developers wouldn’t have the same access to resources to learn to code, develop software and experiment with new ideas. In the end, open source projects are all about the passion and commitment of the people and the community. When we start treating the people behind the projects with the respect they deserve, we’ll continue to see more innovation, new ideas and pride coming out of the open source community.

Martin is the Co-Creator of Presto and a Co-Founder & Chief Technology Officer at Starburst. Martin created Presto (now Trino) 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 analytics at Facebook. Seeing a need for fast interactive SQL analytics, Martin and 3 other engineers worked to create what became Presto. In the Spring of 2013, Martin and the team rolled out Presto into production at Facebook where it was later made open source in 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 “Forklifted” their project into what became known as PrestoSQL, which has since become Trino.

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