Gitea Ltd. Takes Over Gitea Open Source Project, Community Pushes Back

I discovered this piece of news by accident, and I want to share this with you because I believe this is a very interesting case, providing insight into open source projects, even those that are wildly popular.

Gitea is an open source “git forge” (think: GitHub; or rather GitLab, because you can self-host Gitea), itself a fork of Gogs, which also still exists, but with 1/3 of the contributors. Its Open Collective budget reveals that the project raised US$ 35k in total and has an annual estimated budget of 14k. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not financing a full-time maintainer.

So a company is formed to offer services as a means to fund maintenance; then the community of contributors and fans pushes back because the proprietary ownership doesn’t sit right with them.

Since I’m not involved, I’m likely missing a lot of nuances. The timeline, as I gathered:

  1. Gitea Ltd. was incorporated. At least two admins/owners announce that this company will offer paid services, and that it’s becoming the steward of the Gitea open source project: https://blog.gitea.io/2022/10/open-source-sustainment-and-the-future-of-gitea/

  2. An open letter, signed by 48 Gitea community contributors, asks for a different set up. Namely a non-profit organization taking stewardship instead of the for-profit Gitea Ltd.: https://gitea-open-letter.coding.social/ – Spoilers: later, they prepended an announcement to the actual open letter in reaction to what follows.

  3. Lunny Xiao of “the Gitea team”/Gitea Ltd. politely declines: https://blog.gitea.io/2022/10/a-message-from-lunny-on-gitea-ltd.-and-the-gitea-project/ – note that Lunny Xiao has been one of the three annually elected ‘owners’ since the beginning. He created the Gitea fork, and was also one of the founders of Gogs. For all intents and purposes, he could’ve been the BdfL if the Gitea project didn’t have this interesting community ownership model.

  4. A Gitea fork is being created, named “Forgejo”: https://codeberg.org/forgejo/forgejo – it’s hosted on the Gitea-powered forge at codeberg.org, which itself is a German non-profit. (I recently learned that creating a legal entity, a non-profit ‘e.V.’ or association in Germany is much simpler than, say, Canada, so this might have been a good pick.)

With Giteas interesting election procedure of stewards aka “owners”, the move to incorporate a Ltd. that now seems to legally own the domain and trademarks doesn’t align with the values expressed in the community documents. At least that part of project ownership won’t be transferred in the upcoming January election anymore.

This breaks the social contract, part of which is likely mere community expectation and not legally binding, but even moreso a punch in the face of those who shared the vision.

What I also find interesting about this story is: if you release a project into the world as open source (MIT licensed, aka “anything goes”) and build a community around shared ownership, you can’t really take it back anymore – if that’s what Lunny Xiao (and others) try to; I could be misreading this.

As the open letter stated:

[T]here has been some confusion as to the ownership of the Gitea domains and trademarks, which are essential parts of the project […] (if not the most important).

And:

[Y]you can understand our surprise when we learned on October 25th, 2022 that both the domains and the trademark were transferred to a for-profit company without our knowledge or approval.

The name, the domain, the trademark, that’s truly the powerful piece of an open source project. In short, it’s the brand. And even though every contributor can pack up and move to Forgejo, the brand is not moving with them. It’s a huge loss for the health of the project. (And I’m not sure whether the new name will prove quite as catchy.)

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