Working for the man: Keeping the open source faith

The giant software companies are increasingly boasting of their open source credentials but developers need to guard against encroachment on their principles.


More and more open-source developers these days are employees of companies, paid to work on open-source projects, rather than independent programmers doing it for fun. The change raises issues for projects, programmers and employers alike.

A number of corporations are moving into the free software arena, and this has resulted in legions of programmers, paid by companies, moving into free software communities, Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun Microsystems, said last week at FOSS.IN, a conference on free and open-source software in Bangalore, India.

This development has thrown up questions about how open-source developers on corporate payrolls can protect their freedom and rights from the demands of their employers, and resist corporate influences that may run counter to the free software community's interests.

At the conference, an employee of an Indian government lab complained that his employment rules require him to turn in to the company any software developed by him, including what is done outside office hours.

In this context, Danese Cooper, a member of the board of directors of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), who also advises Intel on its open source strategy, dedicated an entire session Friday at the FOSS.IN conference to outlining strategies employees can use to protect their autonomy from the "corporate elephant" that is both powerful and resistant to change.

Historically, companies claimed rights to any software code written by their employees, but there are some changes, for example in California where employee agreements now allow the employee to retain the right to his work outside office hours, according to Cooper.

"Corporations are profit-driven, and are required to do well for their shareholders," Cooper said. To make profits, companies are going to shift their strategies quarterly, and employees may often find that projects they work on are cancelled, she said.

"Companies tend to like to think of their employees as interchangeable plug-ins, that can be renewed in different jobs," according to Cooper who added that this perception is slowly shifting as companies find that they are losing their employees.

Companies also tend to want to manage open source projects, rather than facilitate them, to serve their business objectives, Cooper said. They demand, for example, that their staff work on open-source projects that are of interest to the company. Companies have created a pattern of working that lets them predict how much it is going to cost to do, and when it is going to get done, and though they have to change, it is taking them time to do it, she added.

It is a lot harder to make money from offering support on open source software than from licensing software, according to Cooper. That is the reason employees should watch out for companies that have only halfheartedly embraced open source, she said. "You see that specially in companies that throw code over the wall without any resource tree," she added.

"The open-source brand has become so powerful that people are trying to wear the brand, without wearing the behaviour that goes with it," Phipps said.

Employees are also likely to get caught up in ownership fights on contributions, on whether the contribution should be recognised on behalf of the employee, or the company. Even when employee contributions are recognised, it may be a figurehead rather than all the contributors that are recognised, Cooper said.

The best path ahead for open source developers is to get more assertive when identifying the companies they would like to work with, and in negotiating agreements with companies that protect their rights.

Employees should assert, for example, the right to blog and continue to participate in the projects they have been involved with, because these activities give them visibility beyond the company they work with, and also helps them if there is a dispute with an employer, Cooper said. "Having a well-read blog is the best defense you can have against any problems you may encounter," she added.

Have you read Glyn Moody’s Open Enterprise blog ?

For more of Computerworld UK's in depth look at open source

Stallman: are you ready to fight for freedom?

Microsoft fights Linux and piracy with cheap Windows for second hand PCs

Fedora Linux 8.0 hits back at Ubuntu

"Recommended For You"

Gnome foundation hires ex-HP open source exec Sun in war of words over OpenDS project changes