Offering a free clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux turned out not to be such a simple matter after all.

The CentOS project aims to reproduce Red Hat's tested, supported, and certified version of the operating system, without its per-server subscription fees. Because RHEL is open-source software, it's theoretically possible for an outsider to select the same software packages, apply the same patches, and produce a version of the Linux product that works the same.

But several lead programmers in the project went public on Thursday with complaints that CentOS founder Lance Davis is threatening the project with his reclusive ways. They also raise the prospect of mutiny, in effect, if Davis doesn't respond.

"You seem to have crawled into a hole, and this is not acceptable," the programmers wrote. "Please do not kill CentOS through your fear of shared management of the project. Clearly the project dies if all the developers walk away."

Conventional proprietary software products are hardly immune to problems such as corporate owners going out of business or canceling products. But the CentOS situation shows that the informal, free-wheeling ways common in the open-source realm can have their own pitfalls. To be fair, though, many open-source projects also have formal controls such as foundations and governance committees.

The open letter, augmented by several individual blog postings, was published Thursday on the CentOS mailing list and Web site. Authors include Russ Herrold, Ralph Angenendt, Karanbir Singh, Tim Verhoeven, and several other members of the CentOS development team.

Davis didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The authors object that Davis maintains sole control over the Internet domain and IRC chat channel. And Dag Wieers, who works on the security, Web, and infrastructure aspects of CentOS, is among those concerned about money paid to the project through Google AdSense ads, Web site sponsorship, and users' donations through PayPal.

"For at least three years people were donating money and sponsors were paying for Web site ads while the money was not flowing into the project. Where it went to I can only guess," he said in a blog post. "Once the financial issues are resolved, there is a lot of work to turn the project into a real community project that can release even when one person is out of office, that is owned by a foundation, and that makes the best use of the power of its the community."

"The project depends on one person in too many ways...a person who doesn't answer calls, isn't available as meetings, doesn't publish things he promised to do," added Angenendt. "As Lance hasn't answered requests regarding that over the last few months, the remaining team now has put a stop on that. For the moment all ads have been removed from Web site and wiki, and we are not accepting any PayPal donations anymore."

The CentOS developers also implied that the developers could pick up the project and move it elsewhere. "Please contact me, or any other signer of this letter at once, to arrange for the required information to keep the project alive at the '' domain," Herrold said in the letter.

Open-source software is developed under licenses that permit others to share and modify the underlying source code. That means that, unlike with proprietary software whose rights holder doesn't grant permission, programmers with serious disagreements can "fork" software into a new project. That's a powerful freedom, but it can produce chaos when the resulting divergence means software users must choose among different incompatible versions of a project.

Big forks are rare, though. Dissatisfaction with the Mambo content management system led developers to spawn their own version, Joomla, in 2005. FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD all stem from the same BSD Unix roots. NeoOffice was spawned from the project, which initially didn't support Mac OS X gracefully. The GCC compiler, a software tool used to convert human-readable source code into machine-readable format, competed for a time with the EGCS fork starting in 1997, but the two projects merged again in 1999.