The Cost Of Open Sourcing Your Project

Accusing a company of “dumping” their project as open source is probably misplaced – it’s an expensive business no-one would do frivolously.


If you see an active move to change software licensing or governance, it’s likely someone is paying for it and thus could justify the expense to an executive.

A Little History

Some case study cameos may help. From 2004 onwards, Sun Microsystems had a policy of all its software moving to open source. The company migrated almost all products to open source licenses, and had varying degrees of success engaging communities around the various projects, largely related to the outlooks of the product management and Sun developers for the project.

Sun occasionally received requests to make older, retired products open source. For example, Sun acquired a company called Lighthouse Design which created a respected suite of office productivity software for Steve Jobs’ NeXT platform. Strategy changes meant that software headed for the vault (while Jonathan Schwartz, a founder of Lighthouse, headed for the executive suite). Members of the public asked if Sun would open source some of this software, but these requests were declined because there was no business unit willing to fund the move.

When Sun was later bought by Oracle, a number of those projects that had been made open source were abandoned. “Abandoning” software doesn’t mean leaving it for others; it means simply walking away from wherever you left it. In the case of Sun’s popular identity middleware products, that meant Oracle let the staff go and tried to migrate customers to other products, while remaining silent in public on the future of the project. But the code was already open source, so the user community was able to pick up the pieces and carry on, with help from Forgerock.

Liberation Checklist

It costs a lot of money to open source a mature piece of commercial software, even if all you are doing is “throwing a tarball over the wall”. That’s why companies abandoning software they no longer care about so rarely make it open source, and those abandoning open source projects rarely move them to new homes that benefit others.

If all you have thought about is the eventual outcome, you may be surprised how expensive it is to get there. Costs include:

  • For throwing a tarball over the wall:
    • Legal clearance.
      Having the right to use the software is not the same as giving everyone in the world an unrestricted right to use it and create derivatives. Checking every line of code to make sure you have the rights necessary to release under an OSI-approved license is a big task requiring high-value employees on the “liberation team”. That includes both developers and lawyers; neither come cheap.
    • Repackaging.
      To pass it to others, a self-contained package containing all necessary source code, build scripts and non-public source and tool dependencies has to be created since it is quite unlikely to exist internally. Again, the liberation team will need your best developers.
    • Preserving provenance.
      Just because you have confidence that you have the rights to the code, that doesn’t mean anyone else will. The version control system probably contains much of the information that gives confidence about who wrote which code, so the repackaging needs to also include a way to migrate the commit information.
    • Code cleaning.
      The file headers will hopefully include origin information but the liberation team had better check. They also need to check the comments for libel and profanities, not to mention trade secrets (especially those from third parties) and other IP issues.
  • For a sustainable project, all the above plus:
    • Compliance with host governance.
      It is a fantastic idea to move your project to a host like Apache, Conservancy, Public Software and so on. But doing so requires preparatory work. As a minimum you will need to negotiate with the new host organisation, and they may well need you to satisfy their process requirements. Paperwork obviously, but also the code may need conforming copyright statements and more. That’s more work for your liberation team.
    • Migration of rights.
      Your code has an existing community who will need to migrate to your new host. That includes your staff – they are community too! They will need commit rights, governance rights, social media rights and more. Your liberation team will need your community manager, obviously, but may also need HR input.
    • Endowment.
      Keeping your project alive will take money. It’s all been coming from you up to this point, but if you simply walk away before the financial burden has been accepted by the new community and hosts there may be a problem. You should consider making an endowment to your new host to pay for their migration costs plus the cost of hosting the community for at least a year.
    • Marketing.
      Explaining the move you are making, the reasons why you are making it and the benefits for you and the community is important. If you don’t do it, there are plenty of trolls around who will do it for you. Creating a news blog post and an FAQ — the minimum effort necessary — really does take someone experienced and you’ll want to add such a person to your liberation team.


There has to be some commercial reason that makes the time, effort and thus expense worth incurring. Some examples of motivations include:

  • Market Strategy.
    An increasing number of companies are choosing to create substantial, openly-governed open source communities around software that contributes to their business. An open multi-stakeholder co-developer community is an excellent vehicle for innovation at the lowest cost to all involved. As long as your market strategy doesn’t require creating artificial scarcity.
  • Contract with a third party.
    While the owner of the code may no longer be interested, there may be one or more parties to which they owe a contractual responsibility. Rather than breaching that contract, or buying it out, a move to open source may be better. Some sources suggest a contractual obligation to IBM was the reason Oracle abandoned by moving it over to the Apache Software Foundation for example.
  • Larger dependent ecosystem.
    You may have no further use for the code itself, but you may well have other parts of your business which depend on it. If they are willing to collectively fund development you might consider an “inner source” strategy which will save you many of the costs above. But the best way to proceed may well be to open the code so your teams and those in other companies can fund the code.
  • Internal politics.
    From the outside, corporations look monolithic, but from the inside it becomes clear they are a microcosm of the market in which they exist. As a result, they have political machinations that may be addressed by open source. One of Oracle’s motivations for moving NetBeans to Apache seems to have been political. Despite multiple internal groups needing it to exist, the code was not generating enough direct revenue to satisfy successive executive owners, who allegedly tried to abandon it on more than one occasion. Donating it to Apache meant that couldn’t happen again.

None of this is to say a move to open source guarantees the success of a project. A “Field of Dreams” strategy only works in the movies, after all. But while it may be tempting to look at a failed corporate liberation and describe it as “abandonware”, chances are it was intended as nothing of the kind.

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