Is the Open Source Brand in the Right Hands?

by Mark on March 20, 2008

Open SourceThe methodologies of Open Source are not owned or guided by any one person. The closest thing we have are the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and support of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The OSI certifies what qualifies as an open source license. They have as of late also been adding the TM to the Open Source logo which is the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for open source software. While the Free Software Foundation maintains the Free Software Definition – to show clearly what must be true about a particular software program for it to be considered free software.

I don’t think most open source users understand the implications of this organizations. They control–though not challenged under law–the Open Source trademark.  A quick search at the USPTO shows that open source is not a registered trademark for software. There is a registration for Entertainment services, namely, a continuing series of audio programs about current events and culture via radio and global computer networks. It’s in use by Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath who produce a talk show podcast and blog

As more software becomes released under an open source license I believe it’s very important to the future development of OSS that the term is used appropriately lest it introduce confusion and potentially harm adoption of open source development. Truth be told in a more naive stage in my career I misapplied the term. There is an advantage to having a bona fide open source software package because it benefits from the goodwill generated by other open source software that has come before it. 

Recently I have watched with great interest as Bruce Perens has made an impassioned plea for a seat on the OSI board. Current OSI board member, blogger, and software executive Matt Asay has commented on Bruce’s candidacy questioning his credentials. 

My primary question for Bruce, however, is this: "What has he done for open source lately?" Like some other early heavies in the open-source movement, he gets a lot of credit for a reputation built a decade ago,and that’s fine. However, one can’t rest on past laurels when campaigning for a present-day role

I think Matt’s a little harsh. Bruce is the guy who wrote the Open Source Definition and was the leader of the Debian Linux project. He was a vocal and important part of the early open source software movement. Though Matt’s point should definitely be considered. And Bruce tends to make heartfelt but often abrasive campaigns that can make you question whether he has the judgment to be in a leadership position. 

Open Source Initiative Governance 

As I watched these events unfold I was admittedly ignorant of the inner workings of the OSI so I looked over the bylaws. I thought that perhaps I should join and cast a vote but soon found out that the organization has no members (per Article IV of their bylaws) and is governed by a board of directors who are self policing.  Here’s what I found out:

The bylaws of the Open Source Initiative  Article III, Section 1.  General Purposes notes that the OSI is not for private gain of any person but for educational purposes

This corporation is a nonprofit public benefit corporation and is not organized for the private gain of any person. It is organized under the Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law for public educational purposes.

Article III, Section 2 specifies the specific purposes as amended on March 7th, 2005 which slightly changes their mission

Section 2. SPECIFIC PURPOSES. Within the context of the general purposes stated above, this corporation shall: (1) educate the public about the advantages of open source software [software that users are free to modify and redistribute]; (2) encourage the software community to participate in open source software development; (3) identify how software users’ objectives are best served through open source software; (4) persuade organizations and software authors to distribute source software freely they otherwise would not distribute; (5) provide resources for sharing information about open source software and licenses; (6) assist attorneys to craft open source licenses; (7) manage acertification program to allow use of one or more certification trademarks in association with open source software licenses; and (8) advocate for open source principles

Now the part that I was unaware of the election and specifications of the board members.  Article V, Section 2 states the specific powers:

Appoint and remove, at the pleasure of the board, all the corporation’s officers, agents, and employees; prescribe powers and duties for them that are consistent with law, with the articles of incorporation, and with these bylaws; and fix their compensation and require from them security for faithful performance of their duties.

Finally there is some restriction on the makeup of the board as specified in Article V, Section 4.

No more than forty-nine percent (49%) of the persons serving on the board may be interested persons. An interested person is (a) any person compensated by the corporation for services rendered to it within the previous 12 months, whether as a full-time or part-time employee, independent contractor, or otherwise, excluding any reasonable compensation paid to a director as a director; and

The bottom line is that no matter what the users, vendors, or even Bruce Perens want the board has no obligation to act based on their input.  Though OSI president Michael Tiemman recently stated his position:

The OSI nominates people to the board despite their corporate affiliations, not because of them. The idea that the OSI would elect a "Microsoft" board member is as absurd as the idea that we’d elect a "Google" board member or an "IBM" board member. We elect people based on their own merits, not the merits (or demerits) of the companies or organizations they are affiliated with.

Tiemman even notes that he was the one that suggested to Bruce to campaign for a seat,

…one other salient fact: it was I who suggested to Bruce that he mount a public campaign to join the OSI. It was not I who suggested that he campaign on a platform that is misleading, jingoistic (as Matt Asay says), or otherwise negative in its implications about how the OSI elects is members, sets its agenda, or accomplishes its mission.

Summary

I must say the reason I even posted this diatribe was I suspect that many people are unaware of the workings of this important organization. They use, develop, and distribute open source software without a thought to the power the open source brand has. There are also many companies that rely on the open source brand to help grow their businesses. I think it’s worth our attention to consider whose running that show and how other organizations might join the governance of the brand. Until this point in time things have been running smoothly. It seems that collective board of directors has done a good job making sure that the Open Source brand has remained intact.

Ironically when I started writing this peace I thought I might be making some call to action. Though when it comes right down to it the future of the brand is controlled by ten people who we ultimately have to have faith in to continue to do the right thing. Hopefully my admission of my own ignorance educates and provokes the thoughts of others. 

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

mindcrime March 21, 2008 at 8:17 am

I’m supporting Bruce, but I’m not sure it matters much at this point. The OSI has lost all of their credibility already, and nobody really cares about their license certification. With their little board and it’s nepotism and inbreeding, they aren’t likely to make any substantive move to correct that, so I’m almost tempted to say the best thing to do is stand back, watch OSI die, and then form a newer, better organization in the future to fill a similar role.

Ideally we should put somebody like Bruce Perens at the forefront; and then come up with a real open, community driven governance model and implement some safeguards against vendor dominance of the governance.

Tanner Lovelace March 21, 2008 at 10:34 am

>>> “They control–though not challenged under law–the Open Source trademark. A quick search at the USPTO shows that open source is not a registered trademark for software.”

My how quickly history is forgotten. OSI did, in fact, try to trademark the term “Open Source” for software however it was rejected almost 9 years ago[1][2]! Does the fact that I remember this first hand mean I’m old or just that I’m a better follower of Santayana[3]?

Also, it’s kind of curious to see Bruce trying to get back into OSI after he “left in anger” before[4]. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

[1] http://old.lwn.net/1999/0617/
[2] http://old.lwn.net/1999/0617/a/opensource.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Santayana
[4] http://lwn.net/2000/0810/backpage.php3

Mark March 22, 2008 at 9:48 am

Tanner,

Thanks for the history lesson. I didn’t realize they had tried to trademark it in the past. You not old just well seasoned ;)

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