Open source governance is a concept that is sometimes misunderstood or forgotten in new open source projects. Good open source governance can help maintain the long-term health of any open source community, and includes the process of writing down how decisions are made, rules of engagement for projects and how the rules can be changed in the future. Most mature and successful open source communities have a well-defined governance model.
While there are many governance models that have been developed by different open source communities, our experiences at the Eclipse Foundation, led me to some key concepts that help create an environment of ”good” open source governance.
Complete transparency: Make sure all the key rules and processes are written down
This might seem obvious to people, but writing down key rules and processes can help create a more diverse community. Transparency of governance processes makes it easier for individuals, and especially organizations, to understand how decisions are made and evaluate how they can participate.
Most mature open source communities will have bylaws and process documents. At the Eclipse Foundation, we have a set of By-laws, IP processes, development process and trademark guidelines to help guide our community. Equally important, these are living documents that are updated and refined as our community grows and changes.
An important question is who has the ultimate authority for making decisions and changing the governance of an open source community. Some open source communities are directly controlled/owned by a commercial company, some are controlled by independent Foundations and some use a blended model that grants special status to founding commercial entities.
An important factor in the success of the more popular open source Foundations, like Eclipse, Apache, and Linux is they are truly vendor neutral and independent. The final authority of these communities is the Board of Directors. The Boards are formed in an open and transparent manner that does not grant any special status to an outside commercial organization or individual.
This vendor neutrality makes it easier for competing commercial organizations to collaborate and participate in the same community.
Appeal to multiple stakeholders
Any open source community will have a number of different stakeholders, ex. developers, individual users, organizations that use the technology, organizations that contribute back to the projects, and many others. Governance that takes into account the multiple stakeholders will ensure a wider ecosystem is created around the open source technology.
The governance of the Eclipse Foundation was designed to include the participants of the wider ecosystem. Our Board of Directors includes representation from the committer community, solution providers that build Eclipse-based solutions and the strategic members that sponsor the significant contributions being made to Eclipse projects.
Separation of Church and State
A key area of decision making for any open source project is the priorities and roadmap for the open source projects. The principle of meritocracy is often the key driving factor in determining who influences the direction of an open source project. The long-term success of any open source project is the fact that those people doing the work are making the decisions. Good open source governance has a clear separation of church and state.
The key challenge of open source governance is to ensure this meritocratic decision-making process is not influenced by a “higher” level authority. At Eclipse, the Board of Directors has no direct influence or authority over the product roadmap or feature list for an Eclipse project. The Eclipse Board can create and terminate projects and change the processes on how a project is supposed to operate. However, the Board cannot dictate what a project should be developing or fixing.
Most mature and successful open source communities have implemented these concepts in their governance policies and documents. If you are evaluating and setting up an open source community keep in mind some of these key concepts.