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Last week I wrote a piece entitled “Are We Entering the Golden Age of Forks?” I concluded: I predict we are going to see plenty more forks in the near future as the community starts to re-assert itself. I also think that this...

Last week I wrote a piece entitled "Are We Entering the Golden Age of Forks?" I concluded:

I predict we are going to see plenty more forks in the near future as the community starts to re-assert itself. I also think that this tendency will lead to more independent foundations being set up to oversee the development of free software

Little did I suspect that we would see this quite so soon:

Welcome to The Document Foundation!

It is an independent self-governing meritocratic Foundation, created by leading members of the OpenOffice.org Community.

It continues to build on the foundation of ten years' dedicated work by the OpenOffice.org Community.

It was created in the belief that the culture born of an independent Foundation brings out the best in contributors and will deliver the best software for users.

The FAQ explains things a little further:

Q: Why a Foundation?

A: When Sun Microsystems decided to release the OpenOffice.org software under an open-source licence a decade ago, it was making an act of faith in Community based development, which it hoped would one day lead to an independent foundation. This gamble has proved hugely successful, and today OpenOffice.org is unquestionably the world's leading open-source productivity suite. As the Community approached its second decade, a consensus gradually emerged among leading Community contributors that a new organisational model was needed to take it forward. From the options available, an independent, community owned and managed democratic foundation emerged as the best solution.

Q: So is this a breakaway project?

A: Not at all. The Document Foundation will continue to be focused on developing, supporting, and promoting the same software, and it's very much business as usual. We are simply moving to a new and more appropriate organisational model for the next decade – a logical development from Sun's inspirational launch a decade ago.

That's a little disingenuous. It may be true that there is continuity in terms of what the new foundation will do, but there is a huge discontinuity in terms of how that will happen. In particular, this is clearly aimed at cutting free of Oracle before the latter starts doing to OpenOffice.org what it has done to other open source projects formerly run by Sun.

Rather cheekily, the Document Foundation writes:

Q: And why are you calling the software "LibreOffice" instead of "OpenOffice.org"?

A: The OpenOffice.org trademark is owned by Oracle Corporation. Our hope is that Oracle will donate this to to the Foundation, along with the other assets it holds in trust for the Community, in due course, once legal etc issues are resolved. However, we need to continue work in the meantime – hence "LibreOffice" ("free office").

Yeah, good luck with that one, people: I can really see Larry handing those "assets" over; not.

Still, such naïve optimism aside, this is incredibly good news for free software. For some years, I have been worried about the dependence of OpenOffice.org on a commercial sponsor – first Sun, now Oracle. I have long thought that a foundation would be far better for users and coders. Interestingly, the new foundation will not be asking for an assignment of copyright:

Q: What difference will The Document Foundation make to developers?

A: The Document Foundation sets out deliberately to be as developer friendly as possible. We do not demand that contributors share their copyright with us. People will gain status in our community based on peer evaluation of their contributions – not by who their employer is.

This means that over time, OpenOffice – sorry, LibreOffice - will become a patchwork of copyrights, just like the Linux kernel. The advantage is that no one will have control of the new project; the disadvantage is that major changes to licensing are very hard to effect (which is why Linux will probably never shift from using GNU GPLv2.) The main licence for the new code modules will be dual LGPLv3+ / MPL.

The Foundation already has an impressive roster of Steering Committee Members, and there is also widespread support from all the usual suspects in the free software world. All-in-all, things looks pretty hopeful for this new organisation, which is a great move for pretty much everyone – apart, possibly, from Oracle, depending on what attitude they take. The only question is: which free software project will be the next to discover the joys of forking?

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