Yesterday, 2008-10-27: 21:00 GMT, just a minute before the regular TWiki release meeting, the company TWIKI.NET announced unilaterally that the best for the 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, leaving TWIKI.NET without a contributing community. Question: is it a sensible move for a venture capital firm that depends on a healthy Open Source community to lock it out?

DirtyFork-300.jpg Access to the site is only granted if contributors agree to a set of newly installed terms and conditions dictated by TWIKI.NET, a company founded by Peter Thoeny 12 months ago. His power to do so grows out of two sources: (a) he is the sole owner of the trademark on TWiki and (b) he is sponsoring the server hardware and thus had root access.

And now he has triggered the trademark gun and fired the TWiki community. He even repeatedly threatened people on the #twiki IRC channel that "[he has] been advised by one of [his] investors, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, that [they] need to protect [their] trademark". Clearly, their VC people have no picture of the situation other than their own return of investment. Sure, protecting a registered trademark is what it is all about. But 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.

If there was ever any hope to re-establish a relationship of trust and faith to create a win/win situation by combining community & commerce, this is totally gone now. Thoeny installed himself as BDFL (Benevolvent Dictator for Life) again, despite being rejected by a community vote during the TWiki Summit in Berlin last month.

During the TWiki Summit in Berlin 4+5 September 2008, it became clear that Thoeny has sold part of his trademark rights to his venture capital funded company. Part of that deal was that while he remains ownership on the trademark itself, TWIKI.NET gained the sole right to exploit the brand on a commercial basis. This created a completely new situation for the Open Source project and all of its already existing commercial eco-system. As a consequence, TWIKI.NET was asked to grant a perpetual license to the community to secure the legal situation for contributors and commercial stakeholders, a license that would only have formalized the way TWiki has been running for more than 10 years with Thoeny promising to "take care of the brand".

As faith in him as a leader diminished over the years, and the foreboding of a trademark problem increased, the community asked Thoeny to write down the rights he has granted orally before. Which he didn't. Instead he pulled the trademark trigger in a move he calls "relaunching the project" to "weed out" the good and the bad. Trust in Thoeny as a leader diminished last but not least when his role as a community leader became more and more mixed up with his interests as a CTO of TWIKI.NET, up to the point where he obviously showed more interest to cement a genuine marketing advantage for TWIKI.NET.

The rise of his newly created company continually eroded willingness to contribute to TWiki as an Open Source project. People were more and more irritated by the changed rules of the game. The community has been watching the actions of TWIKI.NET with a lot of interest, in the hope that they would add significant value to this very successful project. Unfortunately, they took an approach of recasting the success of the product, created with years of volunteer work, as their own success.

That's where Open Source shows its ugliest face. And there's definitely no beauty in this shock therapy, even though Tom Barton, CEO of TWIKI.NET says: "the beautiful thing about open source is you don't need to recognize the authority of". What an irony to close another very sad chapter. The last one for as we knew it before.

The appearance of TWIKI.NET on the scene forced a governance crisis TWiki was not able to overcome, despite the good progress that was made up to a couple of hours before. On the TWiki Summit in Berlin last month, a democratically elected Interim Board of Directors was founded whose sole agenda was to negotiate the conditions under which this governance crisis could have been overcome.

The plan was to create a TWiki Association consisting of a Board of Directors and a General Assembly following the example of KDE e.V. The board itself would have created so called Task Teams that manage the operational part of the project to a finer granularity.

The members of the Interim Board of Directors were in the process of creating the Articles of Association and were prepared for the next logical move in an ever growing project, organizing it similarly to other projects in the Open Source business. This formal body would also have been an entry path for sponsors and other organizations willing to partner with TWiki as a project. No such thing was available before. The only way outside parties could have made donations was to give them directly to Thoeny and thereby TWIKI.NET.

This was the case when Sun donated server hardware to power the community site. Sun sponsored TWiki as an Open Source project, not TWIKI.NET. However, there was no entity other than Thoeny and TWIKI.NET to handle these opportunities and resources. It now is clear that the access to these server resource has been used against the TWiki community itself by locking it out.

The democratically elected Interim Board of Directors of TWiki has been displaced by the trademark holder of TWiki as a final chord on the governance crisis. Now, Thoeny is sending around emails to high profile contributors individually to invite them to come back subordinate to the governance of TWIKI.NET. He obviously seems to be in hope that people will do so once the situation has settled. Quite far-fetched and not very likely to happen. Those same contributors who implemented the features he is praising aloud as the shiny new TWiki, are far too displeased by his hostile behavior to be willing to go back to business as usual.

TWIKI.NET is striving to repaint their move as a "new opportunity". What they don't see is that they have put their own business case into severe danger. They just lost the horse power for a product that they were selling. They have been signaling to the community that they don't have the manpower for certain developments and were seeking for help, even willing to pay work for hire. Another error. Adding money as an incentive to Open Source is changing the game completely. Before, people volunteered as part of an act of free speech. Add money to it and nobody will work for free anymore. This poisoned the dynamics.

The current situation is that all core developers have left the ship and joined a new undertaking with the working title NextWiki. This is a fork based on the current code in TWiki that will soon be released under a new name. The goals of NextWiki are clear. Basically, the plan is to found an Association as a formal body for the project, including the reorganization of its governance down to all operational questions, as was in progress for the TWiki project.

The result will be a much strengthened new player, much more agile as it just got rid of the reason for TWiki's ongoing paralysis.

There remains a message for TWiki's users: no worries, we continue working, faster and more productive than ever before, embedded in a volunteer-friendly environment. Sure, this fork now introduces a new choice that was not there before. Well, it was there before and it was introduced by TWIKI.NET, not those guys that "asked for a fork". TWiki users already had the choice between TWIKI.NET's product (a rebranded version of an old TWiki release, packaged as a VMware image), or Open Source TWiki, most recent stable version. This choice more or less remains available with the difference that you will get the real thing from a new site, reworked to be real Open Source, backed up by a large and highly motivated community as a guarantor for continuity and innovation.

Update 2014-01-09

Twiki Inc (formerly known as TWIKI.NET) seems to have closed doors silently around October 2013. Their website now redirects to The whois record for still lists Twiki Inc as Tech Organization with the same postal address as Thoeny himself.

Update 2014-02-13

2008 was a bad year for OpenStreeMap as well. However they resolved their community concerns differently:

Concern was expressed in late 2008 within the OpenStreetMap community when it emerged that Steve Coast was the personal applicant for the OpenStreetMap trademark. It then emerged that he also still owned some key domain names and was handling discussions in relation to the Open Data License on behalf of the Foundation with the same lawyers who had advised the commercial company in the 'hostile takeover' of Twiki. [...] Steve and the board reassured the community that the trademarks and domain names were in the process of be transferred promptly. Control of domains and Trademarks have subsequently all been handed over to Foundation. [...] The trademark registration was finally transferred to the OSMF on May the 28th 2013

— source:

Btw. I've archived the IRC logs of the final project meeting from 2008-10-27 after which the community created the Foswiki fork.
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