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Article from Issue 203/2017

"Inner Source" is great in principle, but struggles without the supporting ethical structure of software freedom.


The Inner Source Skeptic

If you work in software development, you may be hearing about "Inner Source Software." Inner source is a software development methodology that takes the practices of open source software development, but uses them within a corporation rather than out in the open. The current cheerleaders are developers at PayPal – search for "InnerSource Commons" to read more. But the idea of leaving behind the ethical imperatives of software freedom and abstracting a methodology from open source has been around from the beginning of the open source movement in 1998. It even spawned a company, CollabNet, that sought to monetize the concept by providing tools and consulting services to internal development groups at big corporations.

Those early advocates of inner source discovered the methodology was indeed transformative, but only within the context of a corporation ripe for transformation. Getting developers to collaborate over similar code across an otherwise hierarchical management structure challenged the status quo and brought improvement and innovation. But early successes often surrendered to business secrecy, and the resulting compromise – agile but managed – rarely led to a true opening up and discovery of transformed business practices. What was missing was software freedom.

Taking the software freedom out of open source and free software leads to behavior that is the software development equivalent of a cargo cult. As Wikipedia explains, "The term cargo cult [...] originally referred to aboriginal religions that grew up in the South Pacific after World War II. The practices of these groups centered on building elaborate mock-ups of airplanes and military landing strips in the hope of summoning the god-like airplanes that had brought marvelous cargo during the war."

Inner source observes the emergent actions of open source developers and copies them, but neither mandates the principles of software freedom nor insists developers must operate entirely without the need to seek permission from technology owners. That often works for a while, but with no framework of principle, it has no tools to solve new problems that arise. Instead, business requirements take precedence, and developers are unable to stand on principle and move elsewhere with their work. They are turned from craftsmen and journeymen into sharecroppers who lose their tools and home if they leave their job.

While the inner source projects from the early days tended to be internal proprietary code, today's inner source projects are dominated by open source software. This is one reason for the trend away from the GPL for corporate software. Development teams are able to harvest open source code under non-reciprocal licenses and use it to create internal systems. That in turn becomes a vehicle for the enclosure of the software commons.

By encouraging open source look-alike development in a closed environment, code under open source licenses is captured, and its improvements can never be of benefit to its creators or to the wider community evolving it. Copyleft is little help here, as its reciprocal terms are triggered only when the code leaves the company. But the irony is, this approach is self-defeating. The more private change a developer makes to an open source project, the further their version diverges from the one everyone else is maintaining. Eventually the effort required to sustain it is the same as for purely proprietary code.

No doubt advocates of inner source are well intentioned and experienced in open source. They often justify their work by claiming it's a bridge for a proprietary company to convert eventually to true open source. But without a commitment to software freedom, it is doomed to being subverted by the profit motive when there's conflict. Inner source is not a road to open, but a cover for closed.

The Author

Simon Phipps is a board member of the Open Source Initiative, the Open Rights Group, and The Document Foundation (makers of LibreOffice).

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