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The Importance Of Neutral Open Source Foundations


Dirk Hohndel and Swapnil Bhartiya discuss why open source foundations are a necessity.

Dirk Hohndel was an original founding member of the Linux Foundation, founded as a  merger between the Open Source Development Labs and the Free Standards Group. Right out of the gate, Dirk discusses how open source changes the rules in how companies and developers engage and interact with one another. To that end, Hohndel states, “A foundation can be seen as the formalization of these rules as the establishment of a legal framework to do the things that you’re already doing.”

That equates to foundations becoming a logical extension of a typical open governance style open source project, because, “They encapsulate this neutrality aspect.” He continues, “Regardless of where you work, regardless of where you come from, regardless of who you are, this is something we work on together, where we collaborate, and we’re not so much trying to further the interests of an individual company, but are working together for the good of a project.”

To add to this, Bhartiya brings up the idea that it’s more than just code you’re dealing with. He says, “You’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with licensing, you’re dealing with logos or trademarks. And then you’re also collecting money, you’re raising funds, somebody has to manage the resources of the Treasury. So, you do need a body no matter what.”

Hohndel thinks about foundations at two levels. “You have foundations like KDE and the GNOME Foundation, that are built around a project. I think of it the other way around. They’re built around the project, and encapsulate the structure of a project in a legal framework. So you now have the ability to handle money to make contracts to deal with a lot of the growing pains of a project that we’ve talked about in other conversations.”

The second type of level, according to Hohndel, is when, “You have the foundations that are kind of a level above that, which I think is what you talk about when you say neutral foundations. If you look at the way large foundations are typically set up, they are a family of foundations; so the Linux Foundation, below it has the CNCF (Cloud Native Computing Foundation) and the Public Health Foundation has the Energy Foundation which has the Automotive Foundation.”

The difference between the levels is scale and efficiency, all of which involve a lot of legal financial tax issues, and other time-consuming activities. A larger foundation will take care of that by establishing legal and financial frameworks. These larger foundations will have a CFO who deals with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and (as much as possible) automates that for the smaller foundations below.

With regards to neutral foundations, Bhartiya says, “When we do have neutral foundations, it builds confidence.” This happens because an open-source project, which has been used by different players (some of which might be competitors), isn’t being controlled by a specific company and, instead, is controlled by that neutral foundation.”

Hohndel adds to this, “I always think of foundations that have a distributed control. The different companies involved have a diverse board that contains people, ideally, from competitors. You really want people from Red Hat, VMware, and Microsoft on that board; you want to have both Google and AWS involved. In order to ensure that this is not just a way to hide corporate influence, we have seen foundations that are strongly controlled by a single entity. To me, that is not a foundation. That’s just a legal construct that tries to hide the company’s control.”

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