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Time for an umbrella?

That raises an interesting possibility. Now that we have so many open source foundations, it might be worth considering an umbrella organisation for them – we might call it the Open Source Foundation Foundation (OSFF). The question then becomes: what might such an entity do?

In answering this, it's helpful to consider what existing open source foundations state their respective missions to be. Here are a few:

Linux Foundation:

The Linux Foundation promotes, protects and advances Linux by marshaling the resources of its members and the open source development community to ensure Linux remains free and technically advanced.

Apache Software Foundation:

The Apache Software Foundation provides organizational, legal, and financial support for a broad range of open source software projects.

Mozilla Foundation:

The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes openness, innovation and participation on the Internet.

GNOME Foundation:

The GNOME Foundation is a non-profit organization that furthers the goals of the GNOME Project, helping it to create a free software computing platform for the general public that is designed to be elegant, efficient, and easy to use.

Python Software Foundation:

The mission of the Python Software Foundation is to promote, protect, and advance the Python programming language, and to support and facilitate the growth of a diverse and international community of Python programmers.

Plone Foundation:

The Plone Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that was formed in May 2004 to serve as a supporting organization for Plone and its community.

WordPress Foundation:

The WordPress Foundation is a charitable organization founded by Matt Mullenweg to further the mission of the WordPress open source project: to democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.

The Document Foundation:

The Foundation is a charitable Foundation under German law (gemeinnützige rechtsfähige Stiftung des bürgerlichen Rechts), which owns assets and conducts financial and legal transactions on behalf of the Community.

As you might expect, the main aim of most foundations is to promote their own particular project and its associated programs. For the putative OSFF, that would generalise into promoting open source foundations as a way of supporting open source activity. In practical terms, that might translate into establishing best practice, codifying what needs to be done in order to create an open source foundation in different jurisdictions with their differing legal requirements.

That would make it far easier for smaller projects – such as Krita – to draw on that body of knowledge once they have decided to take this route. It might also encourage yet more projects to do the same, encouraged by the existence of support mechanisms that will help them to navigate safely the legal requirements, and to minimise costs by drawing on the experience of others. After all, this is precisely the way open source works, and what makes it so efficient: it tries to avoid re-inventing the wheel by sharing pre-existing solutions to problems or sub-problems.

Easing foundation creation would be good for open source, because the more OSFF members there are, the greater the number of possible connections between them. This would make OSFF meetings an extremely efficient way of communicating with other open source projects. That obviously happens informally all the time, especially at the coder level, but a more formal setting might help resolve issues in a more speedy fashion. Similarly, it could help to promote cross-project work that may not be happening currently for want of suitable forums in which to raise the idea of such collaborations.

This closer collaboration would also allow open source projects to speak with one voice on important issues of concern to them all. For example, one of the key factors in the success of the SOPA Blackout Day that took place on 18 January this year was the participation of Mozilla, which not only increased the reach of the campaign considerably, but also added to its credibility. Imagine if the OSFF had added its voice.

One issue here is the legal status of open source foundations. Those set up in the US tend to be what are known as 501(c)(3) organisations, after the relevant section of the US Internal Revenue Code granting tax-exempt status. As Wikipedia points out, that prohibits them from supporting political candidates, but does allow some forms of lobbying.

In practice, this is not likely to be a real problem, since the kind of issues that would engage an OSFF would be of a general nature – software patents, bad legislative proposals such as SOPA, treaties like ACTA etc. – and would take the form of mobilising open source coders and their networks, or issuing statements backed by the main open source projects, rather than lobbying politicians directly.

In any case, the main benefit of the creation of an OSFF would be more general: making open source more visible through a pan-project organisation that would have the same clout as equivalent ones for proprietary software companies. It's true we have the Open Source Initiative, which already does that to a certain extent. But that's a body fighting for open source in general, whereas the OSFF would be a formal representation of existing foundations, more closely focused on their specific needs. In essence, they would be complementary rather than competing.

The rise of the open source foundations during the last decade was a clear sign of the growing reach and ambition on the part of projects. Creating a foundation of foundations would be a great way of taking things up another level for the next ten years.


Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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