Quarrel over TWiki - Friendly Takeover by Founder?

Oct 31, 2008

The free wiki project TWiki is currently embroiled in a contentious dialogue. The TWIKI.NET venture is undergoing a new governance model that many developers consider a hostile takeover. Without further ado, developers have decided to launch their own, separate NextWiki.org project.

The driving force behind TWIKI.NET is Peter Thoeny, one of the founders of TWiki and owner of the trademark. Together with Rod Beckstroem he had founded TWIKI.NET in August 2007 with the express purpose of providing professional support for TWiki. Thoeny took on the CTO role while Beckstroem assumed executive leadership. Beckstroem then left the company in March 2008 and Tom Barton became CEO. With Thoeny and Barton firmly ensconced, they then announced a company reorganization for their product on October 27. They're adapting their new governance model to the Ubuntu project rather than to Debian, despite the fact that Debian provided the code base for Ubuntu, because they claim that there is no legal protection underlying the Debian brand. They write, "In recent months, it became apparent that the community lacked clear leadership and was moving toward a 'Debian' style of governance, which we do not believe would be healthy for the long run interests of the community."

Replying in a blog entry, developer Michael Daum calls it a hostile takeover: "Yesterday,... just a minute before the regular TWiki release meeting, the company TWIKI.NET announced unilaterally that the best for the TWiki.org project would be for them to take over governance. With it comes a complete lock down of the community site. From that minute on, all long-time contributors have lost access to their code. Counter-reaction: the community has left the building..." The result is that developers need to fill out a webform with new stipulations to regain access to the project.

Daum suspects the new venture capital that Thoeny recently brought in to be behind the deal. Rather than nurture a trusted collaboration, Thoeny suggested in entries on the #twiki IRC channel that his investors, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, advised him to protect their trademark. Indeed, Thoeny and Barton allude to market protection as a major reason for the relaunch. The project page even contains the words "There is a delicate balance between the community needs and what is required to maintain a strong brand." The team keeps returning to the same theme: "Ubuntu has clear branding guidelines, whereas under Debian, a brand cannot be protected." A new entity called the TWikiCommunityCouncil is supposed to set the guidelines for the TWiki trademark.

To judge by community reaction to this announcement, all diplomatic means seem to have been exhausted and the way to a friendly reconciliation is unlikely. Daum writes that "threatening the community that has been working on TWiki on a volunteer basis for the recent 10 years that way is a bit strong. Too strong for the TWiki community." Angered developers didn't hesitate too long before establishing their own branch of the Open Source project and settled on the name NextWiki. TWiki founder Thoeny even tried to butt in on the conversation on the #twiki_fork list, but was summarily expelled.

The battle seems to have been brewing for quite some time. In one of the first responses to Thoeny's announcement, Tom Barton stated that he already knew about the intention to split off when he attended the Berlin Developer Summit back on September 4: "I was informed that the community was ready to announce a fork within 24 hours unless we acceded to a new governance model which implied a very watered down approach to the role of the project founder as well as to his lawful rights to the project brand and trademark."

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Comments

  • What the old TWiki (tm) community wanted

    Regarding the TWiki (tm) trademark, the community wanted to make explicit the permissions that where implicit before, that is, that the community can use the TWiki (tm) brand the way it has been done before without having to pay or relicence TWIKI.NET. This means that any community member could make a TWiki(tm) pakage (taking the core, add some plugins and a nice installer on top) and call it TWiki (tm). This means that I could have a company named "Global TWiki Consulting Services" that provides TWiki related services, and that siltes like twikirules.org, twikigurus.org and such can spawn.
    Today, for all that you need a written permission from the trademark holder, and if there is even the sligthes disagreement between you and him, you run the risk to get sued (a site called twikisucks.org could not exists, for example).
    In the same vein, a consulting company that is seen as a heavy competitor to TWIKI.NET is not likely to get the permission to have TWiki (tm) in its name.

    As for the website, basically you are forced to give permission to TWIKI.NET to use any written material you generate there, BUT nobody else can use it without the consent of the (still non-existant) TWiki Community Council. This is unfair competition for all the consultant firms and independent consultant that today provide services around TWiki (tm) (and there are many, see http://twiki.org/cgi-bin/view/Codev/ConsultantsForHire)
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