Sun, ex-staffers in war of words over OpenDS project changes

Sun regrets flap over OpenDS but company wanted to retain control over project

Sun's chief open source officer said the company restored the original governance policy of an open source directory project because the stewards of the project made unauthorized changes to it five months before they were surprisingly swept up in company-wide layoffs.

Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, told Network World he regrets the flap around the OpenDS (directory server) project, but that the company simply wanted to reverse an unauthorized governance change that Sun claims eliminated its stake in the project, which began in July 2006 to create an open source directory written in Java.

Now that the governance has been reset, Phipps said it will continue to evolve.

The former project owners vehemently dispute that they usurped any chain of command and say that Sun was fully aware of what was going on.

But the fallout from the flap again exposes the fact that Sun is struggling to figure out how best to manage employees and open source projects and balance its corporate interests with its goal of becoming a leader in the open source community.

Phipps admits that he will focus on that issue in the coming year.

"We assumed people understood what their responsibilities were as employees but it is becoming clear to me that we need to be more explicit," said Phipps. "One of the things I will be doing in the new year is working out an appropriate set of training for both employees and managers who are engaged in open source."

But in April there we no such explicit procedures.

The four co-owners of OpenDS -- Neil Wilson, Stephen Shoaff, Don Bowen and David Ely -- who at the time were Sun employees, changed the OpenDS governance after internal and other feedback raised concerns about contradictions in the governance as to leadership within the project.

That led the foursome to alter a clause in the governance model that mandated a single project lead appointed by Sun that had final say over everything.

The four co-owners left a clause that gave responsibility for governance changes to a consensus of the project owners, who were all Sun employees until the September layoffs. That type of governance structure is not uncommon in open source projects.

"They thought they were acting within their authority but it turned out they weren't," said Phipps. "I think they were acting in good faith but, however, what they did went beyond what they were empowered to do."

The change, Phipps said, eventually resulted in Sun no longer having a controlling interest in the OpenDS community after the four co-owners were laid off, and that meant the April change amounted to the foursome disposing of a Sun asset, which they were not authorized to do.

"We respectfully disagree with Sun's assertion and would like to understand what 'asset' was transferred or divested. The intellectual property and copyright ownership have always remained under Sun's control as per the Sun Contributor Agreement. We have never disputed this and worked hard to protect Sun. As of this time, Simon has still not responded to my request to discuss this incident and I prefer not to comment further until he does," said Shoaff, Sun's former director of directory engineering and OpenDS co-founder.

Phipps said it is company policy that whenever any Sun employee acquires or disposes of a Sun asset, they have to get approval from the "appropriate authority that has fiduciary responsibility."

He did not define what asset he was talking about in this case.

"The change they made was in the community interest and they thought it was not going to be a problem because they were all Sun employees," said Phipps.

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