A Love Story That Won’t End Well? – The New Stack

A Love Story That Won’t End Well? – The New Stack

Sasha Medvedovsky

Sasha is a software engineer with over 20 years of experience. It has been long enough to have seen a great evolution of programming languages ​​and development tools. He is passionate about creating the next generation of tools for productivity and collaboration of developers, taking advantage of current technologies, to create a world in which software is developed more quickly and easily.

GitHub has been an important part of the world of software development and, in particular, of open source software. It has provided free hosting for open source projects (the Apache Software Foundation moved its entire operation to GitHub a few years ago) and played an important role in turning open source git into the popular open source management system. code (SCM) that is now. .

However, it seems that the cooperation is coming to a sudden and ugly end, with the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) joining the Free Software Foundation in a recommendation to cut ties with GitHub for the creation of GitHub Copilot.

GitHub’s recently marketed co-pilot offering (which was free until very recently), which offers artificial code composition / completion with artificial intelligence, was built from code acquisition of millions of code projects. open hosted on GitHub. Needless to say, not all open source projects were created the same, with many different licenses (more on OSS licenses), some of which do NOT allow code reuse or copyleft, despite being publicly available. on GitHub.

It is true that using the code to train an AI model is a little different from simply using the code as it is. But shouldn’t at least the creators of the code be consulted if they accept this use of their creation?

For many open source developers, this constitutes unauthorized use of their work and a breach of their trust. Obviously, Copilot would not work without ingesting millions of samples of GitHub code, so it is safe to say that open source is an integral part of it. In addition, any code created by Copilot could be considered a derivative of this open source code (in some cases, entire fragments of open source code could find their way to a closed source code base).

It is true that using the code to train an AI model is a little different from simply using the code as it is. But shouldn’t at least the creators of the code be consulted if they accept this use of their creation?

If this recent divorce between GitHub and open source organizations may seem surprising, it shouldn’t be. It really comes from a mismatch of goals and ideals.

GitHub is a commercial organization

From the beginning, GitHub has been a commercial organization that has turned open source software (git) into a business. While there’s nothing wrong with doing so (many companies have created thriving businesses through commercial open source technology offerings), it’s imperative that we don’t get confused and consider GitHub an open source company or project. It is neither. This confusion lies in their business model, where hosted quality production git was provided for a fee to commercial organizations and free for open source projects.

As someone once said, “if the product is free, YOU are the product.” This phrase has never been more correct than in the case of GitHub. In 2018 Microsoft acquired GitHub for $ 7.5 billion. The common understanding was that the high price (for 2018) was not paid for GitHub technology (again, it did not develop git, and there were many competitors, for example, BitBucket and GitLab); but rather for its developer community, which at the time had 28 million forts.

If Microsoft paid for the OSS community, Microsoft would eventually use the community for profit. Microsoft is a business entity with shareholders and has an obligation to make the most of profits. Copilot is just the perfect example of this. Microsoft owns GitHub and a large stake in OpenAI, the AI ​​company that trained the Copilot AI model. Cooperation has as much corporate meaning that can be summed up as: they have all the most popular OSS projects in the world they host, along with amazing AI capabilities. It only makes sense to use synergies to make a commercially successful product.

There is only one problem with this line of thinking: hosting code does not mean that Microsoft owns the code. And this is not the first time this company has made this wrong assumption.

The debacle of Marak faker.js

An illustrative exchange that took place recently points to potential dangers.

A developer, who goes through the management of boomintentionally broke the code of his open source Faker simulated data generator, because supposedly he felt his work he was ungrateful. He complained about the lack of funding for his popular projects, including Faker, which are used by hundreds of companies.

This opened up the whole Pandora’s box of who actually owns the open source code. What if companies use the code in production? The developer can only break the code … And that’s it?

GitHub got involved, reversed the changes and denied Marak access to its own projects (about 100).

NPM (by the way, also owned by Microsoft) has also reverted its repo to an earlier version, effectively taking control of its code.

Imagine the situation: a programmer has created a very useful open source project. It has been maintained and provided free of charge to hundreds of businesses. Then they decide to make a change that the companies did not like. Microsoft then (via GitHub and NPM) took over its code repositories and reversed its changes.

Does Microsoft seem to understand that the developer owns the code or do they believe that Microsoft owns the code?


I don’t think the open source movement should cut all ties with commercial organizations or stop using commercial products. Cooperation is a good thing. It’s not a zero-sum game, and it helps benefit humanity as a whole.

But the boundaries must be clearly set. If a developer does not want their code to be used in commercial applications, they should have the right to reject it. If they agree with that, no problem. But companies (whether it’s Microsoft, Google, or Amazon Web Services) shouldn’t assume that if they give something away for free, they can grab something else in return.

At the company I co-founded, Diversion, we developed our own SCM. We plan to release it as open source (on our own platform, not GitHub) and hope it is useful to millions of developers.

We will also offer free hosting for independent, open source developers, as a thank you and return to the wonderful people who have given their time and effort for the betterment of all mankind, without asking for anything in return.

In light of these recent developments, I think a promise needs to be made: we are committed, right here, to respecting the licensing agreements of software creators and not using their code in ways they disagree with.

To me it’s something that doesn’t need to be said; but apparently, it must be said explicitly.

Note: Sharone Zitzman contributed to this post.

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