The right to fork is a feature of all communities. It allows one or more members of the community to create a new community that shares in whole or in part the CommonCause, the membership, the BehavioralNorms, and/or the BodyOfWork? of the parent community.

Note that any community can be forked, with or without the consent of the parent community. Where people have a RightToCommunity?, they have a RightToFork. There may be legal or technical barriers (DefensiveCopyright, trademark law, …) that a parent community can put up to impede forking, but the possibility is always there.

Similarly, communities can make it easy to create a fork, for various ideological or practical reasons. For example, using a CopyLeft or other Free license for the BodyOfWork? can make forking significantly easier.

The cost associated with forks is similar to SwitchingCost, since once the fork is made, all people moving from one fork to the other will have to pay (and keep paying) it.


Forking and Free Software

For FreeSoftware, the Right to Fork is an integral freedom.

The right to fork protects an individual’s investment of time, attention, or other resources into a project. So long as the right to fork exists in the project at hand, the individual is free to continue using his or her contributions in the wider context of the project, even if someone else takes the particular project itself in a divergent direction from that needed or desired by the contributing individual.

The right to fork guards against a single point of failure in any project. This ranges from mundane problems, such as a hardware failure which makes a programming project’s files unavailable, all the way up to failure of the political process to protect the free development of that project within a given jurisdiction. The right to fork protects the project against the project leader(s) suffering BurnOut?, and against the possibility that the project DoesNotScale?.

The right to fork bestows developmental scalability to a project, by guaranteeing that whatever change anyone wants to make, they can make. It can be the small, trivial changes that some would not even call forking all the way up to spawning completely separate projects derived from the entire code base and splitting the development community along interest lines. It is inherently anti-authoritarian and permissive, be it permissive indifferent (quiet, private, day-to-day local forkings which may later be re-integrated) or permissive indulgent (an amicable fork used to expand the scope of the parent software).

In some cases, forks of a project are made without access to the BodyOfWork? of the original community. For example, the WINE project is a fork of Microsoft Windows built without access to Windows’s source code.

See also Rick Moen’s Fear of Forking essay [1] and FermentWiki’s CategoryFork FermentWiki CategoryFork.


Right to fork is a key part of the contract made with participants in an open source community. It helps lower the barrier to entry for participants because it reduces the perceived risk that they will be locked into the community unable to leave. Make the connection between members and their community weaker helps with the ExitVoiceAndLoyality? balance.

That said it absolutely not a feature of all communities. Communities can be extremely sticky. The CommonCause of a community is often extremely difficult to fork; remember Solomon and the baby. Most physical communities are impossible to fork; you can exit but you can’t take the town library with you :-).

Information goods are a lot easier to fork than physical goods. But even information goods can spin up such strong network effects (communities of complements for example) that it becomes nearly impossible for them to be forked.

We should probably do just what MeatballWiki did, and change this to “ForkingOfOnlineCommunities.”

Ben, I disagree. The RightToFork is inherent in a RightToLeave and a RightToCommunity?. Physical communities are quite easy to fork; probably the wide array of Protestant Christian denominations are a good example of this.

I think that we often conflate ForkingOfOnlineCommunities with copying the corpus of work. It’s true that you can’t take the physical books or building of the town library with you, but you can make your own lending library open to the public. The problem you’re pointing out is that it won’t be the town library, which is true. Nobody may come use your lending library, but you have a right to start one.

Often it’s hard or impossible to take the corpus of work that belongs to a community, and you may be prevented from recruiting members from the existing community (viz. some company’s non-compete and non-recruitment agreements). But you can (almost) always take the CommonCause.

I rolled back the delete of switching costs. Anybody who has starts a fork will see that people are unwilling to switch. The switch is costing them. And in the future, when new developments are added to the original, followers of the fork will keep paying by missing out.

Define external redirect: ExitVoiceAndLoyality RightToCommunity BodyOfWork DoesNotScale BurnOut

EditNearLinks: BehavioralNorms ForkingOfOnlineCommunities FreeSoftware RightToLeave MeatballWiki SwitchingCost FermentWiki


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