The current situation between Oracle, the Hudson community and Hudson project founder Kohsuke Kawaguchi sheds new light on the relative value of a trademark as a project control mechanism. Understanding the balance of power in community driven project can help IT decision makers avoid vendor lock-in.

Oracle controls the Hudson trademark
Controlling an open source project’s trademark has given the controlling entity, often a vendor, significant control over the project itself. For instance, control over the project’s future direction, or even something as seemingly mundane as where the source code will be hosted.

I previously covered the unfolding story about Oracle preventing the open source Hudson project from making project infrastructure decisions that the Hudson community wanted. As owner of the Hudson trademark through the Sun Microsystems acquisition, Oracle was well within its rights to act as it has.

Hudson community sides with founder
This week, the Hudson community is being asked by project founder Kohsuke Kawaguchi and other project leaders to support their proposal of renaming the project Jenkins, thereby no longer being beholden to Oracle’s control through the Hudson trademark. Kawaguchi writes:

The central issue was that we couldn’t convince Oracle to put the trademark under a neutral party’s custody (such as Software Freedom Conservancy), to level the playing field. In a project where the community makes commits two orders of magnitude bigger than Oracle, we felt such an arrangement is necessary to ensure that meritocracy continues to function.

The response from the community, users and interested readers has been overwhelmingly supportive.

Sacha Labourey, CEO of CloudBees, where Kawaguchi now works, extended an offer for Oracle to join the newly branded Jenkins community:

What about Oracle now? They essentially have two choices. They can either keep working on their own project under the good old Hudson brand, or they can participate as an equal player in the newly branded community. Personally, I’d really like to see Oracle join forces with the rest of the community…

Sacha’s offer is important because it presents Jenkins not as a fork, but simply a rebranding.

A fork would imply that there are now, at least, two viable competing project destinations for community members to contribute to and decide amongst.

Project contributions & founder brand outweigh trademark ownership
Positioning Jenkins as a rebranding, not a fork, hinges on two important factors.

  • The trademark controlling vendor’s contributions being outweighed by the community’s contributions to the project.
  • The project’s brand remaining tightly linked to the founder’s personal brand.

Both aspects hold for the Hudson project.

Labourey states:

Well, the difference here is that Hudson has an “asymmetry” in its community: one of its community members, ORCL, claims they “own” the brand and every contributor has to sign a contributor agreement granting them a copyright license. This “asymmetry” is frequent in many projects (JBoss, Glassfish, etc.) Yet, what is less frequent is when the “owner” of such asymmetry contributes very very little IP to the project (but receives a lot of free IP from the contributors through the CLA).

While several key leaders exist at the Hudson project, few would argue that Kawaguchi’s personal brand is not intimately linked to that of Hudson, and soon Jenkins. This is especially true since Kawaguchi is involved in the day to day technical work and decisions of the project. In other projects, the founder will become less and less involved in the day to day technical direction of a project to focus on other work items, such as the business surrounding the project. In these cases, even when the founder leaves or attempts to start a competing project, the original project remains sufficiently viable as the founder’s absence is less apparent in the project’s development process.

Advice for IT decision makers
IT decision makers are encouraged to identify the control that a vendor has over an open source project, before making vendor selection decisions. Project contributions and employing key community members whose contributions are valued by the community should be valued over ownership of project trademarks during vendor selection decisions.

Even a vendor as large and established as Oracle is not immune to losing control over a community project, thereby putting customers using the project in an unenviable position of deciding between the vendor and the community.

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.”