Forking Toward the Commons: From OpenOffice to LibreOffice and The Document Foundation (WSL 2014)

Sara Schoonmaker (UOR)

In this paper, I explore the development of LibreOffice and The Document Foundation (TDF) as a project designed to promote digital inclusion and the development of the digital commons. The project was formed by forking; it seeks to eradicate the digital divide and promote civic participation by providing free, universal access to LibreOffice as a suite of office productivity tools. By supporting open document formats and open standards, the project fosters conditions for LibreOffice users to share and control the documents they create. The paper is divided into three sections. First, I analyze the historical development of as a Free Software office suite deployed extensively around the world. I highlight the importance of language for the process of digital inclusion by examining the development of's Native Language Confederation. Second, I explore threats to digital inclusion posed by the power relationships between the community and the Sun and Oracle corporations. I analyze the tensions that emerged when Oracle bought Sun and seemed likely to undermine the open nature of the project. Third, I investigate how a core group of committed community members applied their political will and skill to move away from by forking LibreOffice and launching The Document Foundation. They organized effectively to garner support from a diverse range of community volunteers, corporations, governments and associations committed to the development of Free Software. In the conclusion, I identify the conditions that allowed the fork of LibreOffice to succeed. I explore lessons from this case for applying the strategy of forking to other projects promoting digital inclusion and the digital commons. Data for the paper include interviews with founders of The Document Foundation and members of its Board of Directors, as well as The Document Foundation Blog, The Document Foundation Wiki, and the information technology business press.

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