Our Guide for Unmaintained Open Source Projects

There are some really great guides for starting a new open source projects, yet when it comes to dealing with a possibly abandoned, unmaintained project, there is no definitive guide for users, contributors, or maintainers.

I hope that this can be a useful guide for our community.

Problem

When do you declare that an open source project has been abandoned? How many days have to go by until you start maintaining your own fork? What's the standard for communicating with maintainers, contributors, and users? How do you avoid n competing OSS forks of popular projects? How do you avoid duplicated work by people who want to maintain popular, but unmaintained OSS projects? What's the best way to find that one fork everybody is using?

Nights and Weekends

Too many applications out there are using libraries that depend on people having enough time during nights and weekends to work on their side projects. Most of the maintainers out there are not paid for their work. They might have some help from their employers (e.g. Ombu Labs sponsors open source efforts), Tidelift, GitHub Sponsorships, Gitcoin, or OpenCollective, but most projects don't have financial support.

No wonder many OSS maintainers burn out after years maintaining their project. What happens when a maintainer burns out, starts using a different tech stack, or even worse, dies?

As users, we should be entirely grateful for their hard work, but we should also find a way to continue maintaining their OSS project, by starting a new fork or backing an existing one.

Proposal

Depending on your role in the project, here are some strategies that could help users and contributors, or maintainers:

  • For users and contributors: Continuing maintenance for an abandoned OSS project
  • For maintainers: Finding someone else to maintain your OSS project

Why

There is no clear way to continuing maintenance of an abandoned OSS project. There are definitely great guides that share a few important concepts, but not a lot of action steps for the case when an OSS project ends in maintenance limbo:

Advice for Open Source Users and Contributors

What can you do as someone who actively uses or contributes to the OSS project? For example: What can you do when you really really need to have support for Rails 6.0 for your application but this library is blocking you?

Best Judgement for Assessing Abandonment

First things first, use your best judgment to determine whether the project is truly abandoned or just feature complete.

There are many projects out there that are not being actively maintained because they do one little thing really well. Think about these projects as the outliers because they are feature complete and have no bugs.

Here are some things to consider when judging the state of an OSS project:

  • When was the last time there was a commit to the master branch?
  • When was the last time there was a commit to a non-master branch?
  • When was the last time there was a comment in an issue by a maintainer?
  • When was the last time there was a code review from one of the maintainers?
  • Is the test suite still passing if you submit one small change to the project?
  • When was the last version of the library published? (Example: for a Ruby gem, you can check in https://rubygems.org)
  • When was the last time an issue or pull request was closed by a maintainer?

Inquire

When it is not clear, it is okay to inquire about the status of the project. If someone hasn't done it already, you can submit an issue to the project asking about the state of things.

Before you submit your inquiry, you might want to submit a pull request with a small improvement to the project. If the change is small enough and it improves things, then it should be easy to review or close. Make sure that the test suite passes in CI.

You can start your inquiry by saying that you appreciate their dedication and thank them for their hard work over the years, then you can ask if they're looking for help maintaining the project.

Do not demand an answer from the maintainers. Maintainers don't owe you anything because software is provided as is, so you will be lucky if you get a response to a nice request. So, please be nice.

You don't need to offer yourself as a potential maintainer for the project, maybe there are other people out there who are in a better position to continue maintaining the project.

If you don't get any response for a month, then you can move on to the next section.

Start Your Own Fork

You could start your own OSS project by creating a fork. Before you do that, make sure that you check the contribution network for the project. There might be someone else updating a fork that already has all the changes you need.

Fun fact: Forking a project used to be considered a "bad word" but I think the rise of GitHub turned that around.

This is what Solidus did with Spree. A group of contributors got together and decided to start a new open source, e-commerce framework which started as a fork of Spree.

The governance model for Solidus is actually quite interesting and definitely a step in the right direction based on lessons learned from Spree and Solidus' history

Assuming you didn't skip any steps, you may want to post a comment in the issue you submitted initially. In there you can say that until the maintainers respond, you will be maintaining a fork of this project.

Advice for Open Source Maintainers

What can you do as someone who is maintaining an OSS project to make it easier on yourself? What can you do as someone who is done maintaining the project and wants to move on? Here are some ideas based on my own experience and advice from other maintainers.

Look for Co-Maintainers

You don't have to do it alone. It's very likely that many of the users and contributors of your project would be happy to step up their commitment to co-maintain it. You can go so much further if you build a team of co-maintainers.

Nobody wants to spend their holidays answering comments, reviewing pull requests, or triaging bugs. The nice thing about finding co-maintainers is that they can step up when you can't.

A quick and simple way to do this is to post an issue to your repository. Another one is to post a notice at the beginning of the README. You don't have to accept all the people who are interested, but maybe some recent contributors will be interested.

Look for Someone to Continue Maintenance

If you can't actively maintain the project anymore, you can update your README sharing this with your users and contributors. You can say that your project needs a new maintainer and wait for people to reach out to you.

If nobody reaches out to you, then maybe they are using an alternative solution. You can update your README to mention that your project is no longer being maintained and that there are other alternatives to solve a similar problem.

Finally, if you are using GitHub, you can archive your repository. This will show a warning bar to anyone who gets to your project's page:

This repository has been archived by the owner. It is now read-only.

Vet Potential Maintainers or Co-Maintainers

Of course, as a responsible maintainer you don't want to let some random person on the Internet maintain your project. Trust needs to be earned. I think that's probably the most concerning part about giving up control.

Do you know this person? Do you know someone who knows them? Have they been contributing to your project for years? How can you really trust them?

Before you give a person permission to merge to master and publish new versions of your library, you can ask them to submit n contributions to your project. That way you can see if they know what they are doing and you trust them to steer the project in the right direction.

Send Me a Pull Request

Did I miss anything? Do you have any tips that could be useful to the OSS community?

This article is open source and you can find it here: https://github.com/fastruby/blog. So if you see something that could be improved or correct, please fork our repo and send a pull request. Thank you!

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