Why Open Source Governance Matters: Vert.x Case Study

Open source governance is an important issue that is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood by new open source projects. This week there has been a fascinating discussion on the future of the vert.x project that illustrates the need and options for governing an open source project.  Unlike some discussions on this topic, the key participants are respectful, logical and very articulate.  It is really an insightful case study, some hightlights:

1. The Need – Who owns and controls what?

The discussions started when Tim Fox, vert.x project leaders and creator, left VMWare and joined Red Hat. VMWare lawyers sent Tim a letter claiming ownership to the vert.x trademark and requesting control of the vert.x web properties.

No one likes getting these types of letters and you could make the argument VMWare could have taken a different approach.  However, it does illustrate that every open source project has an individual(s) or organization(s) that owns the trademark, source code copyright, domain name, and controls the source code repository, web site, etc.  A ‘community’ or ‘project’ are typically not legal entities so they can’t own anything in a legal sense.

2. The Options 

Tim does a great job documenting the options he has for proceeding.

1) “Netty-style solution”. In this solution almost everything continues as-is. The only difference is a CLA is crafted that grants rights of the contributions not to RHT or VMW, but to the “Project”. This would require VMWare to grant a perpetual license to the “Project” for use of the name Vert.x.
2) Fork. We wouldn’t have permission to use the name ‘Vert.x’ so we’d have to rename the project. That means removing all references to ‘Vert.x’ from the code, documentation, and other materials. We’d also lose the current github issues, the wiki, the blog, Google Group and domain. This would not require any permission from VMware.
3) Move project to Apache Software Foundation. This would need approval from ASF and VMware.
4) Move project to the Eclipse Foundation. This would need approval from the Eclipse Foundation and VMware.

Options 1 implies that the “Project” is hosted at a legal entity, like SPI or SFC, to own in trust the Vert.x name. Surprisingly, it turns out Netty is not hosted at either.  Option 2 is always a hard decision, especially for fast growing projects like Vert.x.  Options 3 & 4 introduce a different culture and process to the Vert.x project.

3. Perspective on the Options
A great thing about this thread is that each of these options is then explained in sufficient detail to get a high-level synopsis of the different options.
4. The Decision
I have no idea how Tim Fox, VMWare or Red Hat will decide.  It does appear that all parties are having a respectful dialog so I have high hopes it will resolve with a positive decision. It is always unfortunate when projects are required to go through this exercise but this won’t be the last time we see it.
From an end-user point of view, one comment is something that really drives home the importance of getting governance correct:
We are a Vegas gaming company and we gamble, but not that type of gamble.

5 thoughts on “Why Open Source Governance Matters: Vert.x Case Study

  1. It is also important to note that governance also extends down the individual contributors. I see so many OSS projects that don’t use CLA’s and they are just setting themselves up for problems down the road. What happens if someone thought they were contributing to VMWare and doesn’t agree with moving the project to Apache? Without a CLA, things can get very dicey for the project.

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