Open-source software has been about two things: passion and need. The passion comes from developers’ love of solving problems, creating new things and working with like-minded individuals. The need is about adding functionality to some existing software, or making a version of that software that is unencumbered (either free as in beer, or free as in speech, or both).

But today, a growing share of the open-source universe has been commandeered by large software organizations looking to commercialize an open-source project by offering proprietary add-ons, or through support and services. These companies—Oracle comes quickly to mind—might be seen as interlopers in the open-source community, viewing committers and contributors as nothing more than free (as in no cost) labor.

So, the question is: Are commercial open-source software and Free and Open Source Software at odds with each other, or is the relationship more symbiotic?

“I come down on the symbiotic side,” said Tim Yeaton, president and CEO of Black Duck Software, which has software to help developers understand open-source code more clearly and to deal with license and intellectual property issues.

“[Black Duck] can identify 300,000 consumable, downloadable open-source projects, with 30,000 new projects begun every year. In the grand scheme, it works like it always did. Developers still find each other on interesting sites that are useful to them. Ninety percent [of those projects] never get a commercial entity around them. Analysts suggest that more open-source contributors are being paid by [commercial] organizations. It’s not that the group of people who do it out of passion is shrinking; it’s just that the former is growing.”

Many experts agree that “professional open source” works best when a company comes in and respects the community that has grown around the project. “In the last decade, big vendors have consistently invested in open source for strategic business reasons, and they nurture the community for their interests,” said Paula Hunter, executive director of the Outercurve Foundation, an advocacy that facilitates the participation of professional developers in open-source projects.

“Look at Eclipse. It was founded and funded by IBM with very tight control. Then it shifted to a non-profit governance model, and IBM loosened its control. Now, users and committers are more comfortable that the longevity of projects would remain intact and meet the needs of developers, rather than the commercial interests of IBM.”

The issue of control over a project is a potential flashpoint for trouble, said Jim Jagielski, chairman of the open-source Apache Software Foundation. “In corporate environments, the list of requirements and features isn’t derived from the need of the masses. It’s derived from ‘What can we sell?’ At some level, companies have to give up control.

About David Rubinstein

David Rubinstein is editor-in-chief of SD Times.