This article explains what an open-source fork is and how to ensure the security of forked open-source projects.
Forking a project allows anyone to take ownership of an open-source project and lead it in a new direction, but there is far more to forking a project beyond declaring a project has been forked.
Open source has a powerful tool up its sleeve that allows anyone to clone a project and take it in a new direction. This superpower is simply known as forking the project, and the web’s most widely used content management system WordPress was started as a fork of another open-source project: b2/cafelog.
There is also a community-led fork of modern WordPress called ClassicPress.
The creators of nulled plugins and themes sometimes claim they are simply creating a fork. But there is more to forking a project than just making it available.
What is an open-source fork?
An open-source fork refers to a project that has been derived from an existing open-source project. When a project is forked, it means that a copy of the original project’s source code is taken and further developed independently.
The purpose of forking a project can vary, but it generally involves making modifications, adding new features, or addressing specific needs that differ from the original project’s direction.
Forks can occur for various reasons, such as:
- Development Divergence: When the goals or priorities of a group of developers diverge from the original project, they may decide to create a fork to pursue their own vision.
- Bug Fixes and Improvements: Forks can be created to address specific issues or add enhancements that are not being actively pursued in the original project.
- Community Support: If a project loses momentum or its development slows down, a fork can be initiated to continue the project’s progress with a new community of contributors.
- Experimentation and Innovation: Forks can serve as a sandbox for experimentation and innovation, allowing developers to explore new ideas without affecting the stability of the original project.
It’s important to note that open-source forks maintain their own separate development paths and can evolve into independent projects with their own communities, development teams, and features.
However, they often retain the underlying principles of open-source software, allowing others to freely access, use, and contribute to the forked project’s source code.
What does forking a project mean?
Forking a project refers to creating a copy of an existing project’s source code. When you fork a project, you duplicate the entire codebase, including its history and branches, to your own repository.
Forking is commonly done in open-source software development (e.g. WordPress), where the original project’s source code is made publicly available for anyone to view, modify, and distribute. By forking a project, you establish a separate and independent development branch that allows you to make changes to the code without directly affecting the original project.
When you fork a project, you effectively create your own instance of the project that you can freely modify, experiment with, or contribute to. This copy becomes your own repository, and you gain full control over its development.
Any changes you make in your forked repository do not impact the original project unless you explicitly choose to contribute those changes back through a process called a pull request.
Is forking good for a project like WordPress?
Forking is a powerful mechanism in collaborative software development as it encourages community involvement and enables different individuals or groups to take a project in diverse directions based on their specific needs, goals, or ideas.
It allows for experimentation, customization, bug fixes, feature additions, and even the creation of entirely new projects based on the original codebase.
Forking a project means the new project owners are taking on the responsibility of the project—responsibilities such as communication, community, updates, and maintenance.
Sometimes, these important considerations can be missed by short-sighted developers looking to take a project in a new direction.
How can forking be bad?
While forking a project can be beneficial and often leads to positive outcomes, there are scenarios where forking can have negative implications or be considered undesirable. Here are a few potential drawbacks or challenges associated with forking:
- Fragmentation of Development: Forking a project can lead to fragmentation, where the developer community becomes divided between multiple forks. This can result in efforts being spread thin across various versions, reducing collaboration and potentially slowing down overall progress.
- Maintenance Burden: Forking a project means taking on the responsibility of maintaining the forked codebase independently. This includes addressing bugs, security vulnerabilities, and compatibility issues, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, especially if the original project has a larger community and support.
- Loss of Centralized Governance: When a project is forked, it often means separating from the centralized governance structure of the original project. This can lead to challenges in decision-making, coordination, and establishing a clear project direction, particularly if the forked project lacks a strong leadership or community consensus.
- Community Fragmentation: Forking a project can result in a split within the developer community. Contributors may need to choose between the original project and the forked version, leading to a divided community and a decrease in overall collaboration and shared resources.
- Diluted Userbase and Support: With multiple forks, the userbase of each individual project may be divided. This can lead to diluted user support, documentation, and community resources, making it more challenging for users to find help or guidance.
- Duplication of Effort: Forking a project without apparent differentiating factors or substantial improvements can result in redundant efforts. Instead of pooling resources and collaborating on the original project, energy, and contributions are divided between similar projects, potentially hindering overall progress.
Despite these potential challenges, forking can still be a valuable strategy in certain cases, especially when there are strong motivations, clear differentiators, and a dedicated community behind the forked project. It’s important to evaluate the trade-offs and consider the potential long-term implications before deciding to fork over a project.
Want to listen to what an open-source fork is?
Listen to this Patchstack Weekly episode where Robert talks about securing open-source forks. 👇