Open Source & the Letter of the Law

I’ve stayed mostly quiet on the issues that have been rearing their head regarding the newest LibLime software offering because of my connection to the company in the past. That said, I had to comment on Josh Hadro’s most recent post about the community uproar over LibLime’s Enterprise Koha. Josh starts his article by saying

Typically, a revamped vendor product line doesn’t result in a flurry of open letters to the community and lengthy message threads on mailing lists and blogs. But LibLime’s recent announcement of Enterprise Koha has generated just such a response, prompting many to reexamine the sometimes fluid roles that vendors, customers, and code contributors play in the open source software community.

He goes on to mention several of the more popular threads/posts/emails that are floating around on the issue. But what I think Josh is missing in his article is the real heart of what open source is – and that’s the community around it. Now, don’t get me wrong as an active member in the Koha community (both because ByWater wants me to be and because I love it!) – I sometimes want to reach through my computer screen and wring someone’s neck – but that’s just because everyone loves Koha so much and wants to see what’s best for the software and the community.

So, as I said, I had to reply to the article and my reply can be read on that article itself or right here:

To follow up on Owen’s comment I had a friend explain it in a great way – I hope he doesn’t mind me stealing his words :)

“The easiest way to explain this is, you know in word processing there is a feature you can see the changes someone made? Well if I can see the changes I made, and the changes you made, then combining the two is much easier. Imagine now you and I take a half finished novel, that we have been working collaboratively on, I keep publishing my changes incrementally, but you instead go away and work for a year and then hand back a book, with 300 new pages, and edits to almost all the other pages.”

As an author myself this was a great way to explain the situation to me – like Owen said there is no if about it – eventually the two versions of Koha will be so out of sync that it will be too much work for anyone to merge them back together.

That is why a call was made on the Koha mailing list for LibLime to share their code in a public Git repository – allowing developers who have time to make the merges incrementally instead of trying to do it a month or two or twelve down the road.

All that aside – open source is not just about software or licensing or code – it’s about community and an open source application developed in isolation isn’t really an open source application. It’s the community that drives open source, it’s the community that keeps open source alive, and it’s the community that took Koha to where it is 10 years after a small library trust in NZ decided to share their ILS with the world.

This last note is very important to repeat – it’s one I say over and over when I teach open source to librarians. Open source isn’t just about the software – it isn’t just about getting things for free – it’s about being part of a community of software users and developers and fans who all pour their heart and soul into the project to make it its very best. And that is why there is so much uproar and that is why there is so much being written about this topic – because people love Koha and want to see what’s best of it.

Just my 2 cents – take it or leave it.

[update] The official company opinion from ByWater Solutions was added after I posted my comment on my own. I want to add that here:

Since the release of Enterprise Koha, ByWater Solutions has done its best to stay neutral with the hopes that a quickly deteriorating situation would eventually turn around for the better. We held this hope not for the sake of the Koha community, for its stability is not under question, but for a fellow support vendor that seemed to be going through somewhat of an identity crisis. Unfortunately for all involved, this vendor chose a path that has stirred up much controversy, mainly surrounding the fact that their version of our community software is no longer open source. Some say it is; most say it is not. The very simple question we pose is this: Can one obtain Enterprise Koha without paying a vendor to install and support it. If the answer is no, then the software is very clearly and undeniably proprietary; and those who use it are a victims of vendor lock in. Unfortunately many of these customers chose Koha to avoid exactly that.

Regardless of the fundamental wrongs surrounding this idea, ByWater Solutions has seen it as inevitable growing pains for a developing software community and has continued with business as usual. However, there is one trend we are beginning to see that has inspired the writing of this post, and that is the growing vilification of the community and the martyrdom of the vendor who has left it. We have been recently compared to religious extremists, hell bent on banishing anyone who is less than pure from our rigid society. This is an unjust picture to be painting because in actuality, we are comprised of very passionate people, some of whom have poured their heart and soul into this project in many cases without compensation.

We think it is important when reporting on a topic such as this that elicits such strong emotions to research all areas surrounding it. An important fact not yet discussed is that the developers of Koha are not the only ones having issues with Koha being forked. Customers of the company that has forked the code are also feeling the pain. Many customers are furious that they are not getting what they signed on for and are having a hard time getting the patches they want implemented in their systems. In one instance, a customer was taken off of the company’s user list for voicing their concerns about the numerous “process changes” even though they were still under contract with the company.

The recent change in policies and participation from this vendor has prompted us to make it clear to librarians that ByWater Solutions is in complete alignment with the true ideas and values of open source. Open source is about so much more than the source code and the license; it is about the community around it. It is for this reason that the community is in an uproar. It is a real shame this major contributor has pulled away from all community participation, communication and general niceties, but thanks to the community model we will only grow stronger from these growing pains. That being said, ByWater Solutions will continue to contribute 100% of their development, continue to participate in as many community activities, meetings, and day to day chats, and continue to deliver the best service to those seeking support from a company that has built its business model around our customer’s and the community’s needs.

[/update]

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