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Essay of the Day: Code Forking and Governance in Open Source Software

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th February 2013


the authors argue that forking need not be seen as negative behaviour; rather, it can be a way of building long-term sustainability

* Essay: Code Forking, Governance, and Sustainability in Open Source Software. Technology Innovation Management Review, January 2013.

Linus Nyman and Juho Lindman discuss Code Forking in the Context of the Three Levels of Governance

* the Software level

* the Community level

* the Business-ecosystem level

In the conclusion, they write:

“Forking sits at the intersection of several different open source topics, such as software development, governance, and company participation in communities and business ecosystems. In the interest of clarity, we have simplified the categorization of the multifaceted concept of forking. In actuality, there is overlap among the categories: a strong community offers better insurance of sustainability of the software level, while better software can more easily attract a bigger community. Both a poorly handled community and an abandoned project can spawn a business ecosystem competitor.

The right to fork code is intrinsic to open source software and is guaranteed by all open source licenses. This right to fork has a significant effect on governance and helps ensure the sustainability of open source software. We have analyzed the effect of forking on three different levels: the software level, the community level, and the ecosystem level. On a software level, code forking serves as a governance mechanism for sustainability by offering a way to overcome planned obsolescence and decay, as well as versioning, lock-in, and related concerns. On a community level, code forking ensures sustainability by providing the community with an escape hatch: the right to start a new version of the program. Finally, on an ecosystem level, forking serves as a core component of natural selection and as a catalyst for innovation. Online forges offer a plethora of publically available programs that can serve as the building blocks of a new creation. Current projects can be forked, abandoned projects can be revived and commercialized, or programs can be combined in novel ways to better meet the needs of both the developers and end users. It is the right to fork that moulds the governance of open source projects and provides the dynamic vigour found in open source computing today.”

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