LibreOffice cash-for-code strategy tests open source ethic

In an unusual, controversial move, the Document Foundation is taking bids for paid development of LibreOffice for Android

The Document Foundation's tender for the development of an Android implementation of LibreOffice begs serious questions, namely: Can an influx of cash into open source code creation succeed, and how do pay-for-code plays from nonprofit foundations affect the ethics and work ethic of today's open source community?

For those who haven't heard, the German nonprofit behind the successful open source LibreOffice productivity suite issued a tender document last week at the LibreOffice Conference seeking a bid for the one-off task of extending the LibreOffice document viewer prototype into a basic document editor on Android. It covers all the core program modules: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, and Math.

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The community has already experimented with bringing a LibreOffice editor to Android, first in the form of an early proof-of-concept, then with a LibreOffice document viewer built on the Mozilla for Android framework by Collabora developers, among others. But the number of volunteers turning up to work on the project has clearly been disappointing. That's not surprising, given the scale of the task facing any would-be developer; clearly the enthusiasm of casual volunteers has been chilled.

The truth about open source and money

Contrary to popular sentiment, open source software is rarely written as an act of philanthropy. Rather, it represents the overlap on a giant Venn diagram of the vested interests of the participants. But with the proposed implementation of LibreOffice on Android, commercial motivations for engagement will be hard to devise.

Developers interested in coding the Android port won't be able to generate future income from their work, as the Documentation Foundation policy (rightly) keeps all the work open for the community. As a result, it's hard to imagine a business model that would fund the substantial up-front investment needed to write the Android port. So far the only commercial activities have been Web-hosted LibreOffice solutions such as the one provided by RollApp.

Technically, one could create a proprietary Android implementation of LibreOffice following a quiet change of licensing that TDF executed in the past year. This would allow the implementation to be monetized by traditional software industry tactics based on artificial scarcity. TDF changed the license from the LGPL v3 to a duality of LGPLv3 and MPLv2. The new Mozilla license is explicitly compatible with the (L)GPLv3, but allows new work under any license -- including proprietary -- as long as its source is in a separate file.

To make matters more interesting, TDF is relatively cash rich. Donations pour in from the millions of grateful users of LibreOffice around the world, resulting in a significant cash surplus for the foundation. As I explained in my session at OSCON this year, money is not always a blessing to open source projects. Open source projects are not "about" money. They arise from the overlap of the extrinsic interests of their participants -- some commercial, some not -- and not from any intrinsic motivation to monetize the code. That's why so many become nonprofit entities.

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