The reality of open source (aka Koha confusions)

This disclaimer is of course on the about page of this blog, but it bears repeating before I start:

Disclaimer: Please note that the words on this blog are my words and no one else’s. The opinions and views presented here are my personal views and not those of my employers.

Now that that’s out of the way…

The Background

For the last 3+ years I have had the pleasure of teaching librarians all about open source software. I have explained the nature of open source and the freedoms associated with it. I have explained the governance between most open source projects. I have repeatedly stated that you can tell the success of an open source project by the community behind it. Not just the size of that community – but the fervor with which that community supports the product they are developing and the mores behind free and open source. I then had the pleasure of repeating my lessons in an upcoming book on the topic.

It is for this reason that I get so very upset — not angry – although a little bit angry, but truly sad and upset — and frustrated when I see the news that is circling the product I have supported since I first learned of its existence in 2004 (before I even got to participate with and learn to love the members of the community)!! I talk here about the Koha open source ILS.

I talk here of the split of one of the vendors from the community, the fork of the code and then the subsequent purchase of said company. The split and fork are old news and we (the community) have moved on and gotten stronger because of it. We have voted to have a non profit organization be in control of all Koha assets and have started fresh with a whole new domain (one that meets the criteria the community has set forth – aka openness).

The Situation as it Stands Now

What upsets me now is the ignorance of those who bought said company (and I use the word with it intended definition – not the way it’s often used by kids these days). I don’t know why I let it bother me so much, but when I see something as so obvious it upsets me that I’m unable to make others see the same thing. Maybe it’s the educator in me, maybe it’s the stubborn Italian blood – who knows. It is for this reason that I write this post – this post which explains (whether you want to understand or not) the facts of open source, the facts of how Koha is governed and the facts of where we stand today.

When the sale of LibLime was announced, the community was cautiously optimistic. The web was full of posts of community members, outsiders and librarians alike thinking that maybe this meant that things could go back to normal, back to the way they were, back to one community working together as it should be instead of one company trying to make “community” sound like a bad word.

When the sale went through we all held our breath and waited. The holders of the community’s assets, the Horowhenua Library Trust (HLT), reached out to the new LibLime (now a division of PTFS) and asked what their intentions were for joining the community. Explaining that the community had voted to have HLT hold the Koha assets so that no one company (and no one with a financial interest in the software) could ever make such a mess of things (“mess of things” being my words not theirs). The response was not good, in fact the response didn’t exist. It wasn’t until months later that the committee at HLT had an update for the community and it didn’t sound promising.

But we’re not there yet in the story, so let’s go back to a few weeks ago when at least one member from a few select (no idea how they were selected) vendors supporting Koha was sent an email asking them to contribute their company press to via a proxy by the name of Kelly. Kelly informed us that she was now in charge of the news section of the site and would see that our news was posted. Poor Kelly obviously hadn’t been taught the ins and outs of open source before joining the “open source” support company as a marketing person. The community made it clear (as did the vendors who were emailed) that all news would be posted to the new official site and that no one person would ever be in charge of that site (unlike it would be open for all to sign up for accounts and add content as they see fit).

This message was shortly followed by a message from PTFS CEO, John Yokley, assuring the community that he understood that the site was set up as a temporary measure since was so out of date and that PTFS wanted community help in updating “parts” of This too was responded to in true community fashion with librarians, vendors and community members explaining the actual facts – that the new site was the official site in the eyes of the community and the community’s opinion (remembering that the community is made of of developers, software users, fans of the product and support vendors alike) is all that matters when it comes to an open source project.

It is now that I’m starting to wring my hands in frustration, trying desperately to figure out how to educate these people so they would finally understand what kind of world they were joining by becoming an open source software support company. Maybe other projects are different – I’m not involved in any projects other than those in libraries – but it seems pretty clear to me that Koha was around for 9 years before this vendor came to support the product and Koha will be around for years to come – it doesn’t need nor does it want a company to take charge. The community has done an amazing job these last 10 years in creating a stable, mature, widely used product – why would anyone think that the project needed help – or needed a guardian with a financial interest in the software? The idea behind the development of Koha is that the software users (aka librarians) get to decide the direction the product goes in … all the librarians – and the only way that can happen for certain is if no one company is in charge and looking out only for their customers and their bottom line. It is for this reason that with each release a new ‘release manager’ is voted in – keeping the direction of the product always moving forward.

Sometime either during these email exchanges or after these email exchanges, a conference call was set up between the committee at HLT and someone(s) at PTFS (the first response, by the way, to the request to return the domain to the rightful owners – the community). It was after this call was scheduled that disagreements over the agenda and the time (since members of the committee are literally on the other side of the world from PTFS) that the committee decided to first approach the community with all the updates they had and cancel the call (a report that got members of other open source communities interested enough to write about).

Eleven days later PTFS let all their developments from the last year out into the wild in the form of what they call a ‘Release of Koha.’ Once again the initial reaction is positive. The community and librarians alike thank PTFS for sharing their code and showing that they’re willing to be open and have their developments integrated into official Koha releases. But in our excitement we seemed to have overlooked something

But here is where the mixed messages come in: “Harley” is prominently listed on as a release of Koha. Since no PTFS staff are among the elected release managers or maintainers for Koha, that is overreaching. Ever since Koha expanded beyond New Zealand, no vendor has hitherto unilaterally implied that they were doing mainstream releases of Koha outside of the framework of elected release managers.

You may be asking yourself, “So where’s the problem?” Well the problem is this – once again a vendor has taken it upon themselves to act as if they have the power to control a product that has been successfully developed and used for 9 years before they came along… Galen goes on to explain that forking the code is completely legal and happens all of the time, but this is not marketed as a fork (which is good), it’s marketed as an official Koha release (which is bad – and not true). The truth is this:

  • only a community elected release manager can announce an official release
  • developments in public git repositories (as this is) will be integrated into the official Koha releases as the manager sees fit (in the case of “Harley” here is the schedule put forth by the current and next release manager)

My Issues

This brings us to today – a day that started out pretty great for me – a day where I got to talk to my fellow librarians about the power of going open source and the awesomeness that is belonging to an open source community. But then I look back and I look at today’s posts and news items and I get frustrated again. There were some very timely articles I had read on open source recently, one stating that

Trust, in business, is considered hard to earn. But it’s easy to earn in open source, if you just give trust first. Giving trust proves you worthy of receiving trust.

Another brought home what I keep repeating about companies having different goals than the open source community:

For a corporation an open source project is just another puzzle piece, just another move on its board. It’s an asset. For a community, the project is more. It’s where you put your time, your loyalty. It may be where you put your love.

One thing I always say when teaching open source is that one of the benefits of choosing an open source product is because the developers love what they’re doing and they love the software they’re creating. Usually I get some giggles, but it’s the truth!! If we didn’t love what we were doing – if those who worked on Koha in the early days didn’t love what they were doing – then Koha would have never grown the way it has.

It is for this reason that those who just don’t get open source see what’s going on now as drama in Koha-land. When in reality it’s not drama, it’s a fact of open source development that companies will break off and do their own thing. It’s a fact that open source software can and may fork in two different directions. It’s a fact that the events of the past year have brought those who love Koha closer together and has made the community stronger and more productive.

What it boils down to is this – open source is about community! No matter how you look at it, no matter what you think you believe! Open source is about community and without the communities behind these applications there wouldn’t be products like Koha and the only way to run a successful business around supporting the original (not the forked) open source application is to join the community, get to know the members, earn their trust and work collaboratively on making one amazing product!

A Related Sneak Peak

In the chapter of the upcoming book on open source for libraries, the chapter on communities starts as follows:

Open source is about so much more than the code and the programmers; it’s about the community and the power of the crowd to produce amazing products. Every successful (key word being ‘successful’) open source project is backed by a community of developers and application users who keep it alive and kicking. While there are ways to make money off of working on open source, you’ll find that many of these community members perform their duties to keep learning, to share knowledge, out of a love for the product and a sense of obligation to the community.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,


  1. Excellent post Nicole!

  2. I am amazed that you have enough time to vomit all this up – and I don’t see what any of this has to do with reality – which is that libraries need cost effective working systems so they can keep running.

    How do you know ever detail of any communications that went on? you don’t – and you should know better than to post only one side of any story

    Why should a company give assets they just bought away to some trust that has done nothing but insult them?

    You are frazzled over the use of the word release? I pray for the day that is my biggest problem.

  3. In between my giggles at your pathetic attempt at a response I’ll type this short reply – if you want to be an ass about things then maybe you should use your real name so that we know who we’re talking to.

    Or maybe you should be aware that nothing is ever anonymous and your IP address tells me that you’re at PTFS posting this 🙂 So glad that you can handle this in a mature manner.

  4. Okay, now that I’ve stopped laughing let’s get serious.

    I agree, libraries need cost effective systems, but choosing open source is about more than cost savings – in fact sometimes it’s not even a cost savings. Open source is about the community. It’s about people coming together and developing an application (and no I don’t mean that they all have to be developers – users have a huge part to play in the development process – they steer the development).

    Next, I never said I knew all – I gave my understanding and my opinion of events on my personal blog where I get to do just that.

    As for the trust, no matter how you view their actions, they are who the community has voted to hold the assets – they are the ones who gave Koha to the world in the first place as a gift – and they will look out for the interests of Koha better than any company ever can (and I said any company – not your company).

    Finally, the word “release” is the final straw – so not the big issue. The big issue is my frustration with being unable to teach others about something I believe in strongly, about something they have chosen to take part in and about something they say they believe in.

    My post was both my opinion and my attempt at educating others about the true nature of open source – which is at its very core – community.

  5. I was actually at home when I posted my note – i regret that I did not use my name. I am frustrated and fatigued by all that has gone on, the PTFS IP is my fault as I did not lot off of their network before I posted .

    Nicole, you need to remember that no one has ill will here – but the lack fo clarity on all sides is not helping us move forward.

    I apologize. I’d like to see this be done.

  6. I think I was more than clear – 2000+ words of clear peppered with my emotion I admit, but still very clear including links to facts and other opinion pieces. All based on the pieces of information have come across my desk. Nothing in my post above is made up. There was an email message that was sent directly to me (and CCed to other vendors) asking me to send my news through Kelly in order to get it posted on There was an email sent to the entire Koha list stating that we would have access to ‘parts’ of the site to edit it. There is the fact that the koha trademarks and domain name are still owned by PTFS with no sign of them being transferred to the committee that the community voted to hold the assets and there is a huge ad on the site for the Harley ‘Release’ with dwarfs the now ‘community’ releases which are in fact the ‘official’ releases. What in here is untrue or unclear?

  7. I agree with Amy. Let’s put this to rest so that PTFS can do the work that they need to do. PTFS/LibLime is not the old LibLime. They are listening and they are trying to do the right thing. Maybe it’s not always done in the way that the community would like, but their efforts are genuine. PTFS/LibLime is my library consortium’s Koha support vendor. They are going to be doing a substantial amount of development work for us and we are impressed with what they have done in recent weeks. I have the utmost confidence that our development will be contributed to the official community Koha code base, as they just demonstrated by making Harley available. Isn’t that the most important thing? They have demonstrated that they want to work with the community. That is way more than we can say of the LibLime of two months ago. I’d like to see this be done too.

    And by the way, if there is anyone who understands open source in libraries, it is Amy. I received a lot of inspiration when I followed her blog on open source when I was first exploring it as an option for our libraries. Much as I did with your blog Nicole. And I thank both of you for that.

  8. I couldn’t agree more that the new PTFS/LibLime is not the old LibLime … but in answer to:

    “Isn’t that the most important thing?”

    the answer is a resounding no.

    Just like open source isn’t about affordable systems – it’s not solely about the code – so no that’s not the most important thing – the most important thing – as I keep saying – is the community.

    Of course great strides have been made and they have been recognized. My frustrations (and many others’) remain with the lack of understanding of the history of, the traditions of, and the nature of open source – which I repeat is in the community behind it.

  9. I agree, clarity would help all sides.

    So in the interest of clarity I would like to state that as of now, the trademark application filed on the 13th of February 2010 NZ time – 1 day after the sale of LibLime was called off, has still not been withdrawn.

    It was registered by Metavore DBA LibLime, and is now the property of PTFS.

    As a New Zealander of Maori descent, the fact that this application has not been withdrawn after it was bought to PTFS’ attention is a clear sign of ill will.

    I can think of no legitimate reason for PTFS, who have never done business in New Zealand, to hold a trademark on a word from our indigenous culture.

    I am more than willing to work with PTFS and I often communicate with developers working for PTFS … and I would count them as friends and dedicated members of the community. In fact until your ill tempered ad hominem attack on Nicole I would have counted you a friend too Amy.

    But the fact I respect and have genuine affection for some of the PTFS employees (might I add Sean seems like he will be a great asset to the project), this does not mean I excuse the behaviour of their employer.

    There is no doubt some mistakes have been made on both sides, and there is no doubt that progress has been made, but while the TM application remains I find it hard to believe there is goodwill.

    This is me speaking as Chris Cormack, member of Kai Tahu and Kati Mamoe Iwi and Koha developer, not in any other capacity.

  10. Oh, I realise I may not have made it clear, the trademark application is in New Zealand.

  11. Thanks Nicole for giving utterance to your feelings. The cosmic truth is that you’re deeply involved in the Koha project and that your involvement and sincerity is an asset which does matter much more than other so-called ‘Koha assets’. We need more avowed Koha fanatics like you!

  12. Wow people, in the immortal words of that great Los Angeles philosopher, “Can’t we just all get along”….

    Do I have to remind anyone of this unpleasantness, when there was a power struggle to have another support vendor just try and toss it’s hat into the veritable koha ring? (I speak for myself here..)

    And I’m not looking to point fingers, or call anyone out on the carpet either, or chose sides, I’m just saying that there’s been enough misunderstandings, (as we’ll call them), on both sides…I think that I can say pretty confidently, that we all are trying to work towards the same goals here, aren’t we? I mean really, just what is the disconnect here, I’m trying to understand…

    This is where I think Kudos can step up and facilitate the conversation amongst ourselves because to me, it still seems like a great, big old vacuum out there, in terms of communication with each other….

  13. Scott, I had to edit your comment and put a link to the press release you were referring to instead of having the entire text here.

    Now, in response:

    I need to make it clear that I have nothing against another company joining the support ring – that is awesome. The disconnect comes from a open source community trying to explain open source to a previously proprietary vendor – it’s not just a new product to sell, it’s a new way of thinking and acting and working.

    As for KUDOS, that is only a US based group and as such won’t be able to speak for the entire worldwide Koha community. The only ones able to speak for the official Koha community are members of that community (KUDOS included – but not them alone).

    As for whether we’re working towards the same goal – I don’t know if we are or aren’t, I can only speak for myself and those I know and trust in the Koha Community.

  14. Hi Scott

    I’m sure we can all work together effectively. Speaking for myself, as I have mentioned above, there is at least one issue that if resolved would move the situation forward immensely. I don’t see anyone saying the situation is hopeless, I see people expressing displeasure at certain actions and I think that is healthy. Simmering discontent is much more dangerous than open discussion.


  15. It’s also important to note that since January 2009 there have been 6 new vendors that have joined the community – so it’s not that the community is banding together to try and hurt a new vendors – support vendors are necessary and provide the software with so much support!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *