OSS contracts at 20 paces

An awful lot of successful technology companies ended up being in a slightly different market than they started out in. Microsoft started with programming tools, but came out with an operating system. Oracle started doing contracts for the CIA. AOL started out as an online video gaming network.”
Marc Andreessen

There’s a reason tech companies end up in different markets than when they started out… the landscape is constantly changing, as are the opportunities. Organisations like Microsoft and Oracle have been able to successfully pivot when the opportunities have arisen.

OSS projects tend to be quite complex and often pivot to deliver a different set of outcomes than were originally predicted at the start of the project. I love Seth Godin’s idea of thrashing, attempting to lock down all of the desired outcomes in a big bang at the start of a project. However, on large, long-term OSS projects with very well defined outcomes in mind, there’s still room for a pivot (and re-thrashing) when big opportunities present themselves.

If you’re looking to manage your OSS project via the strict terms of a highly detailed contract (contracts at 20 paces), then chances are that you’re going to lead a project with high levels of agitance. In my experience, the strategy of managing to the intent of a contract and the relationships that are delivering on it has definitely been the more successful approach on complex OSS projects. The projects that were managed to every clause and detail of a contract have been less successful.

Generally speaking, the relationships between parties will go on long after the implementation project has been completed once the operational phase commences, so the obvious objective is for customer and vendor/integrator to prosper from the relationship. So the challenge for the legal teams is agreeing on contracts that give flexibility, fairness and protection to both parties without getting caught up in the minutiae.

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