Before the Wikimedia Foundation was established as the organizational carrier for Wikipedia and its sister projects, the Wikipedia trademark as well as the server infrastructure had been owned by the start-up company bomis.com, which ran an ad-funded search engine mainly targeting a male audience. Wikimedia was founded over two years after Wikipeda and only after a substantial part of the Spanish Wikipedia community had started a Wikipedia-fork named “Enciclopedia Libre Universal” to prevent Bomis from including advertisments in Wikipedia. Bomis then handed on all Wikipedia-related intellectual property to Wikimedia.
In projects using open or free licensing standards such as Wikipedia (Creative Commons By-Share-Alike license) or Linux (Gnu General Public License) a “fork” is always a (mostly: latent) option. In a way, the mere possibility of a fork should secure that an organizational carrier is attentive to the needs and positions of the community, whose contributions the project depends on. Of course, forking is also a way to resolve conflicts within communities, for example between sub-communities with different priorieties as the case of BSD Unix.
In the case of Wikimedia, choosing the organizational form of a non-profit foundatiofn allowed for community participation and tax-exempt donations (see “The Importance of Clear Boundaries for Community Participation“); but most of all it was a signal to the community of volunteer contributors that their content will not be exploited by a private enterprise. It is all about trust.
Today, several significant members of the OpenOffice community presented the newly founded “The Document Foundation“. The official goal of the organization is to replace Oracle, which has acquired the OpenOffice brand together with prior OpenOffice-carrier Sun Microsystems, as the carrier organization of the main open source alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary office suite. Consequently, in its first press release, the Document foundation kindly asks Oracle to “become a member of the new Foundation, and donate the brand”. Until this happens, the OpenOffice-version officially promoted by the Document Foundation is called “LibreOffice”. The self-declared mission of the Document foundation reads as follows:
Our mission is to facilitate the evolution of the OpenOffice.org Community into a new open, independent, and meritocratic organizational structure within the next few months. An independent Foundation is a better match to the values of our contributors, users, and supporters, and will enable a more effective, efficient, transparent, and inclusive Community. We will protect past investments by building on the solid achievements of our first decade, encourage wide participation in the Community, and co-ordinate activity across the Community.
Do we see a trend or pattern here? While commercial use of openly licensed and collaboratively developed products is generally appreciated – remember: it’s all about free speech, not about free beer -, the most important or focal projects seem to increasingly be run by non-profit entities. In a way, these seem to be able to better function as boundary spanners or arbiters between communties of volunteers and commercial ventures.
More on the issue of the relation between communities and organizations will be presented by Sigrid Quack and myself in the course of the upcoming “Free Culture Research Conference” in Berlin (see also the conference paper “Managing Boundaries between Organizations and Communities: Comparing Wikimedia and Creative Commons” (PDF)).