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Can an open source project undergo a hostile takeover? That is, the current project has an active community and an active BDFL, but some individual or group wants to take over the project.

Also, does the BDFL being female or non-white or another discriminated against group affect the likelihood of such a thing happening?

Arguments about whether it's theoretically possible are good, but empirical data would be even better.

I tried googling about this, but mainly got hits about an open source game called hostile takeover.

  • What's a BDFL? I've never heard that term before :) – Zizouz212 Feb 15 '16 at 22:09
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    @Zizouz212, Benevolent Dictator For Life, as in Python. – vonbrand Feb 15 '16 at 22:28
  • Lots of projects have conflicts, but whether they would be considered a "hostile takeover" would depend on your point of view. This would be a good topic area to cover on this site, but I think this particular question isn't workable sorry. – curiousdannii Feb 16 '16 at 9:27
  • "Arguments about whether it's theoretically possible are good, but empirical data would be even better." What are you trying to do with the answer to this question? Is there someone you're trying to convince of something? – Andy Lester Feb 22 '16 at 19:35
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Yes. To do so, you need to fork a project (thereby becoming the BDFL of that new project) and just simply have your fork be more popular than the original project.

It's not really hard at all, especially if you happen to be a large corporation that is able to dedicate a lot of time and effort into the fork (much more time and effort than the existing BDFL who is probably working on a volunteer-basis). In fact, in 2014, the Cocos2D-XNA framework was "forked into oblivion" by a company called Xamarin.

But forks are not necessarily bad. After all, it shows that people are interested in your project, even if they want to take it in a new direction. And, of course, the two forks can learn from each other and prosper together. To learn how to deal with forking issues, I recommend looking at this question: What can I do when a fork of my project is out-competing mine?

  • If the project died under the "new management", it probably would have just died earlier if left alone. – vonbrand Feb 16 '16 at 1:29
  • I found this study from a university in Belgium that took a deeper look at forks, their motivation and effect on the original project. – Toxantron Jan 4 '17 at 11:41
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I witnessed a hostile takeover of a project once which happened "from within". At that point I was no longer very actively involved, but still had good contact with many project contributors, so I saw it happening from the sidelines without actually being involved.

Background

It was an online game project. When the old project founder retired, the server admin who hosted most project resources (website, gameserver, IRC server etc.) became the new leader. Over time, the development team became increasingly unhappy with the new leader due to their general behavior and attitude.

The Takeover

The project team decided that they needed to part with the server-admin and elect a new project leader. But they were quite certain that the admin would likely not agree with any peaceful attempt to replace them. So they decided to do it behind their back. They found a new hoster and over night transferred all project resources to the new host.

The most critical part was the domain name. It was not just the domain of the official website, but also the one the game-client connected to for both updates and for getting the gameserver-list, so the players would play on the server of whoever controlled that domain. That domain was still registred by the retired project founder. They managed to contact them and they agree to the takeover and changed the DNS to point to the new server. Without the domain it likely would not have worked to overtake the identity of the project.

The Aftermath

The server hoster was obviously very upset because of the putch behind their back. They flamed a lot, tried to incite the player community and tried to continue their project under the same name but with a different domain. But most parts of the player and development community was loyal to the "putchists". The "original" project under the server admin didn't went anywhere while the project under the new administration continued to flourish.

How could the admin have prevented this?

What I learned from this story is that there are two critical parts of the identity of a project: The domain name and the trademark. Whoever controls these controls the project and the userbase will follow them. The admin could have easily prevented the takeover by trademarking the project name. Control of a trademark means you can also easily gain control the domain name.

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How could a third party take control of the project in any meaningful way? Sure, they could try to take it over, but that would more often than not have the developers (the real essence of the project) move elsewhere and continue their own fork. It happened with MySQL, and (in lesser way) with OpenOffice. Without developers and a vibrant user community, the original project will just wither and die off.

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