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How, with no company or non-profit organization to own an open source project, can I arrange for the project community to hold the ownership of the web site, vs. one person.

Simple in theory, but someone has to pay the server bill (not a lot, cost isn't my concern), someone holds the keys to the domain name, and while one could hand out SSH access to any number of admins, some person or company must be the owner-in-name of the VPS instance or other hosting platform.

Right now, we've got a former project owner that wants to move on, and is happy enough for us to take over the site. But it's been difficult to contact him 'til now, and I'd like to plan for the project to avoid that in future. One guy's absence shouldn't torpedo a project.

It's the "hit by a bus"/"won the lottery" problem: an open source project has a problem when its site owner is no longer interested or available, but perhaps unwilling or unable to cede control to others. Were the owner to suddenly shuffle off the mortal coil, the domain, server, everything could be tied up in probate, and even deleted or domain sold before the community could migrate it.

So is there a generally well-known way to hold the site in community trust without a company or non-profit set up?

I have googled quite a bit, but the results always assume I want to learn to build a site, or start an open source project. The query to find good info is probably difficult to structure.

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You've already realised that digital credentials are the easy part of the problem to solve. They can be held by multiple people, each of whom can then perform authoritative activites with them. There are even secret-sharing protocols, such as those that allow any-M-of-N holders to collaborate to reconstruct the secret and act with authority. Holding property (eg, group funds) and entering into contractual relationships (eg, being the domain name registrant) are the tricky bits.

This isn't really a question about open-source, per se, but you're right that the problem often afflicts open-source projects that have started to fledge. The gold-standard solution is to form a body with legal personhood to do these things, with rules that specify which person or people have the authority to act for the body in this regard. How you do this, the reporting, tax, and other obligations of the body, and similar questions, are all local jurisdictional issues, and you don't tell us which jurisdiction you're in. But it's generally a fair amount of trouble to do this, which you clearly know, as you've asked how to do without it (in paragraph 5).

Some jurisdictions have the concept of an unincorporated association; mine does. As Wikipedia's article on the subject so pithily puts it,

"Unincorporated" indicates that the association is not a legal person ... an unincorporated association cannot own property (even its own funds): the members must appoint someone, usually a treasurer or committee, who will hold the property as a trustee.

So although the organisation cannot be the domain name registrant, a member acting as a trustee can. This is a lighter-weight structure than something with legal personahood, but a more useful arrangement than a member acting on his/her own behalf, as the organisation can (eg) according to its rules replace an unresponsive or hostile trustee, then approach the registrar to have the registration transferred to the new trustee. In my jurisdiction, such associations can even open bank accounts (that's the link from my own bank; many other equally-capable banking organisations are available).

I don't think we can advise on the rules for your specific jurisdiction, but my advice is to ask local sports clubs, musical organisations, macramé societies, and the like, how they do this where you are, and follow their example.

I believe there are also some umbrella organisations that exist to provide this infrastructure for fledgling free software projects, but again this will be jurisdictionally-dependent, I don't know of any in my jurisdiction, and asking for offsite resource pointers is off-topic for this site.

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  • Thank you - this is very good. I'm already considering whether our local club can take on the project's site as a pro-bono work. I appreciate that you took the time to write such a detailed answer. – jddj Nov 28 at 5:02

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