Grounding For Open Source Foundations: An Interview with Martin Michlmayr

Foundations play a crucial role in open source. Few free software projects can set up a non-profit corporation and legal protection for their code, organize a board of directors to handle all their administrative needs, or raise the necessary funds. So we urgently need the Apache Foundation, Eclipse Foundation, Linux Foundation, and others.

Martin Michlmayr, who has put in stints as Debian Project Leader and president of Software in the Public Interest, released a 58-page report titled Growing Open Source Projects with a Stable Foundation in April 2021. Among its broad range of topics are governance, stability, community growth, financial and legal considerations, and the pressures on the foundations themselves. This report is well worth a read for anyone running a free software project or working with a foundation in that area. People interested in the foundations themselves will also benefit from a research report by Michlmayr going into some depth about them.

I interviewed Michlmayr to assemble some basic ideas that free software advocates should have when thinking about their stability.

You cover a very wide range of functions for foundations. Which are fulfilled well currently, and which need more focus or effort?

Martin Michlmayr: It depends on the organization. A lot of foundations suffer from a lack of resources, which determines the kinds of services they are able to provide.

Generally, the functions that are most important are fairly well covered. This includes accepting donations, paying for expenses, taking care of a lot of the administrative work that projects need (such as renewing trademarks and domain names), etc. A number of other functions, such as marketing, are generally not covered so well.

Some foundations (notably the Linux Foundation and Eclipse Foundation) focus on industry collaboration. They do a great job of providing a neutral venue where companies can collaborate. They also provide help to companies to get started with open source.

This role for a foundation, as a neutral venue for collaboration, is becoming increasingly important as open source evolves from a hobby into a way for companies to solve problems better, faster, and at a lower cost by collaborating with others who have a similar problem.

Suppose I’ve just started a free software project showing promise. At what point should I look for help from a foundation? What does my project need to have in place?

Michlmayr: A challenge for new projects is that most foundations don’t cater to them. Many foundations expect projects to be well-established already, although a number of organizations offer incubation to new projects.

Generally, new projects should think ahead and consider how things will change as they grow. They should focus a lot on getting governance right.

Are there perhaps too many open source foundations now? Or should there be more? Are current ones evolving to meet new challenges, or do the challenges call for new foundations?

Michlmayr: Running a foundation is a lot of work, and we saw in the past where people started a new organization without properly understanding how much work it would be — especially work few people enjoy doing (such as the extensive paperwork). I believe there’s a better understanding of the burden nowadays, and most organizations are created because they fill a specific need that couldn’t be met as easily through an existing organization.

Are there too many? Possibly, and we’ve seen some organizations become virtual organizations within another foundation so that they don’t need to do their own paperwork. The X.Org Foundation, for example, joined Software in the Public Interest and operates as a virtual organization now.

The Linux Foundation supports a “foundation-in-a-foundation” model that makes it easy to start new organizations by using the existing infrastructure and capabilities of the LF. I think we’ll see more of this.

Open Collective is another interesting example: they provide infrastructure for receiving and spending funds; projects can easily sign up and make use of this infrastructure immediately. This meets the needs of many projects, in particular smaller ones.

About Andrew Oram:

Andy is a writer and editor in the computer field. His editorial projects at O'Reilly Media ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM (Brussels), DebConf, and LibrePlanet. Andy participates in the Association for Computing Machinery's policy organization, USTPC.

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