This seems important. I wonder what it means?

February 17, 2009 Jack Repenning

Do companies really give back to open-source communities?  Matt Asay suspects they do not, which would be pretty bad juju for open source. But I'm not so sure. In the Subversion project (initiated and sponsored by CollabNet), most of the top committers say they do their Subversion work as a part of their "day job." 

To begin with, of course, CollabNet employs several primary committers specifically to work on Subversion. In addition, from asking around about this in the past, I've learned that there are one or two others who are explicitly employed to work on Subversion as at least a part of their formal job description. But most of the others do what they do because they themselves, at least, recognize that it's the most efficient way to get good version control for their company and profession. These people aren't just creating Subversion, they're not disinterested (or fanatical) hackers: they're giving back. They're contributing to the commons.

Why does my survey differ so markedly from Matt's? Hard to say, but I have a couple theories:

  • Maybe the give-back ratio among enterprises doesn't really need to be any higher than among the general population. It's pretty well accepted that the proportion of users of any given open-source project who actually contribute code is quite small; maybe the same is true of corporate consumers. In which case, both Matt and I have skewed our results by our survey sample. 
  • Maybe the CTOs and CIOs Matt surveyed just don't know what's actually going on down in the trenches of their companies. Much of open-source give-back is at the individual contributor level, anyway. Very few corporations I know of have policies or reporting structures around such things. I'm a CTO, for instance, and although I happen to know a lot about our Subversion contributions, I know vastly less about our contributions to the other 200 or so open-source projects on which we depend. 
  • Or, who knows: maybe this is just one more way in which the Subversion community is head-and-shoulders above any other open-source community. Wouldn't surprise me in the least! 


This all has important implications for the inner-source community as well. You can have a healthy inner-source project with very small contribution rates from the rest of the company. You shouldn't take that to mean the project is unsuccessful! Success is primarily measured by reuse. Contribution is a way to get there, not a measure of having arrived.

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