Is Open Source Dying Out?

Open Source is a well-understood devlopment model - so could it really be dying out?
4 August 2022

The Tiger’s an endangered species. Is Open Source development another?

It is in the nature of dispersed communities made up of clever individuals to be somewhat paranoid that they’re constantly under threat for what they know, or the particular skills they have, or the projects on which they have worked. Unfortunately, it is also in the nature of corporate entities to occasionally – not to say regularly – prove them right. Welcome to the ongoing state of tension between Open Source developers and the platforms on which they work.

That state of tension ebbs and flows, sometimes dying down to a state of almost normalcy, sometimes flaring into open hostility due to the action of one of the two loose parties, the developer community and the platforms and companies. So it makes sense that the question of whether Open Source as a viable phenomenon is dying out is asked on a fairly plottable doom-cycle.

But since 2020, there has been a growing sense, marked by a handful of cases, that the Open Source community, at least as we have known it, is coming under more and more pressure to accept commercialization of developers’ work – with the profits going to platforms or companies, rather than the developers themselves – or to start up on their own in a different space.

The CentOS Debacle

The first alarm bells in some time were sounded in 2020, when Red Hat, which had sponsored everyone’s Linux platform of choice, CentOS, unilaterally withdrew its support for the platform, creating its own version and essentially taking the platform in-house with CentOS Stream.

At the time, the move shocked the Open Source developer community, and effectively split those who’d been working happily on CentOs Linux into those who went down the company platform line and worked on CentOs Stream, and those who followed the platform’s original designer, Gregory Kurtzer, when he developed his own updated and modified version, Rocky Linux.

While in hindsight it could look like a simple enough case of corporate rationalization, the waves of uncertainty it sent through the Open Source developer community were similar to the sense of panic that comes over a herd of gazelles when one of them first smells lion on the unmoving air.

The Defold Licence

Then there’s the King/Defold Licence case. Also in 2020, King Games released its Defold game engine on GitHub (of which, more later), so that it was available for Open Source community development. Developers questioned the choice of licence, as it was initially unclear. Many assumed it was released under an Apache 2.0 (Open Source) licence – common practice for those releasing projects to the GitHub community.

It wasn’t. It was under a custom license, which takes it out of the realm of Open Source, according to the Free Software Foundation’s “Four Freedoms.”

The community felt it had been conned, and that King was trying to get community development which – under the custom licence – it would then have been free to commercialize without acknowledging or rewarding any of the developers who had worked on it. The more King responded to say that hadn’t been its intentiob at all, the uglier the mood became.

That’s the point about a dispersed community of individuals who occasionally have dealings with corporate structures. Once you lose its trust or its buy-in, the community can turn against you quickly and you can find yourself on a hiding to nothing.

And then there’s GitHub.

The Leave GitHub Campaign

GitHub, for many years the premier home of Open Source development due to the practicalities and the user-friendliness of its platform, was acquired in 2018 by Microsoft. That ruffled developer feathers almost immediately, but the community settled down and continued to code and develop on the platform productively for years.

Then in 2022, Microsoft and GitHub came up against the wrath of developers over a relatively swift change of heart concerning a program called Copilot. Open Source developers had been working on it on GitHub perfectly happily, on the understanding that Copilot was never meant to be a commercial product, more an intellectual exercise to see what could be done, and how it could be done.

When GitHub announced out of a relatively clear blue sky that it would take Copilot to market as a commercial product, with the profits going to GitHub itself, developers were furious.

So much so that the Software Freedom Conservancy delivered a heartfelt denunciation of the platform, encouraging developers to stop using the platform for their Open Source development, on the grounds that it could be commercialized from under them at any time, just as the work on Copilot had been.

Neither Microsoft nor GitHub have responded to the denunciation with any particular clarity, but in that absence of comment, there can be read – especially by the always skittish Open Source development community – a declaration of a new reality. A reality that says, to some extent at least, that if a company provides a platform on which you can develop software, honing your skills and your understanding, then yes, if you happen to do any particularly commercial work there, the platform has the right to take it from you and make money from it, without involving you in either the financial rewards or the accreditation for your work. That appears to be the deal: take it or leave it.

Where Does All This Leave Open Source?

Whether the majority of the developers on GitHub will follow the Software Freedom Conservancy’s lead, or whether they will stay with a platform they know, and take the risk of being suddenly commercialized, is yet uncertain. The case may split the community just as much as the CentOs decision did. And with every split in the community, arguably the community itself gets weaker and more prey to dissolution.

It’s probably true to say that Open Source will never entirely die – those who leave GitHub, like those who deserted Red Hat, will find other avenues for their Open Source work. But every time the community is hit with a commercializing hammer of distrust, the strength and diversity of that community dissipates, at least for a while. And in the lack of response to the Software Freedom Conservancy’s call to abandon GitHub, there may be a determination on the part of Microsoft and GitHub to call the Conservancy’s bluff, and establish that new, commercially-driven reality.

Added to recent remarks from US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that Open Source was “a key national security concern,” alongside the likes of ransomware, it’s probably fair to say that the environment for a thriving Open Source community has never looked quite this hostile before.

While Open Source may not die out entirely, it may take quite some time to return to its former strength, if it ever does. And if it does, it will probably be somewhere else, because without any concessions or negotiations, the GitHub position seems to make the principles of Free Open Source Software (FOSS), on which the community is based, untenable within that longstanding home of Open Source work.