Over the last few months, I've frequently pointed out the vulnerability of important open source projects that are supported and controlled by corporate sponsors, rather than hosted by independent foundations funded by corporate sponsors. One of the examples I've given is SUSE Linux, which has been hosted and primarily supported by Novell since that company acquired SuSE Linux AG in 2003. Novell, as you know, is expected to be acquired by a company called Attachmate a few weeks from now, assuming approval of the transaction by the Novell stockholders and by German competition regulators.
Recently, the future of the SUSE Linux Project (as compared to the Novell commercial Linux distribution based on the work of that project) has become rather murky, as reported by Pamela Jones, at Groklaw. Apparently, Novell is facilitating some sort of spin out of the Project, which is good but peculiar news.
Why peculiar? Because when a company is subject to an agreement of sale, one of the requirements the buyer imposes during the sale-pending period is that the seller cannot engage in any transactions outside of the ordinary course of business without the consent of the acquiror. This makes sense, because once the buyer has committed to a price, it doesn’t want the value of any of the assets it is purchasing to fall. That means that one would expect that Novell would at minimum be abstaining from taking any action in connection with any effort to move the project out and into an independent entity.
Except that Alan Clark, Novell’s representative on the Project Board, is actively helping with the spin out. That being the case, one has to assume that Attachmate must support the spinout as well.
Shouldn’t that be a good thing? In principle, yes, but the true intentions of Attachmate, which is a private company, are largely unknown. If the result is a truly independent foundation, then the spinout would be a welcome and long overdue development. But if the foundation is set up in such a way as to allow Attachmate to control everything that goes on, then the transition will be more illusory than real.
On this score, as I’ve written in the past, the primary factor to watch for will be how the Board of Directors of the new foundation will be constituted and elected. That will become clear when a draft of the bylaws for the new organization becomes available. Another key term to watch will be whether Novell allows the new foundation to take the SUSE trademark with it (or be granted equivalent license rights to use the trademark), or whether Attachmate will require Novell to keep that asset for Attachmate’s exclusive use. If the latter is the case, then SUSE developers, like OpenOffice developers, may find that while they can fork the code if things don’t work out with Attachmate, they would need to leave behind a significant amount of the "goodwill" generated by all of their hard work in the past.
As of this writing, both of those questions remain open (at least to my knowledge), although this needn’t be the case, since Attachmate could make a detailed public announcement of its intentions at any time, if it so desired.
While the current uncertainty over the future of the SUSE Linux Project may serve some unknown goal of Attachmate’s, it certainly must be unsettling for the independent developers involved, and presumably for Novell’s enterprise Linux users as well. As I wrote in an Op/Ed piece in MassHighTech yesterday:
As part of the maturation of the open-source software ecosystem, developers and customers need to demand the same independence for key open-source projects that they do for the developers of even garden variety standards. Any corporation that wishes to reap the substantial commercial benefits that can result from launching a successful open-source project should transfer its trademark, code, funding and in-kind support either to an already existing independent foundation, or one that is created expressly for that purpose. Until the vendor does, independent developers and other vendors should withhold their support, and end users should refuse to become dependent on the open-source software involved.
It would be better for all concerned if Attachmate would make a frank public announcement today regarding its intentions for this new foundation. If it did, project developers, SUSE users of all types, and ultimately Attachmate itself, would all be much better off.
Updated: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols expresses a different view here.