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Scott Shreeve, MD

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OSI – Open Source Irrelevance?

Irrelevant (ĭ-rělə-vənt ) adj.

  1. Having no bearing on or connection with the subject at issue
  2. Not connected with the subject that is being discussed
  3. Not applicable or pertinent

The Open Source Institute was established in the heady days of 1998 just as the bubbles began to fly. It was a time when the first victories of open source were hitting the mainstream press and presenting a real threat and a real opportunity for the market.

As the money started to flow irrationally into open source, as most predominantly represented by VA Linux, the venture capitalist began “humping legs” in their efforts to chase the money. Subsequently, and retrospectively, the Open Source 1.0 push was funded by these dogpilers, who sought perverse ways to put a proprietary twist on the purity of the open source model (say that five times!). Despite the ethos of open source being most correctly represented by the GPL, these mutant open source business models demanded increasingly more mutant forms of the GPL – beginning with the benign BSD, Apache, MIT-x11, through the Sleepycat, Python to the CDDL, LGL, NCSA, to (insert company name here) License dejour, to the most recent flak over attribution.

Given all the confusion, it was consoling to know that some of the great minds of the open source movement had the foresight to create an organization designed to wade through the fog. From the OSI’s Launch Announcement page:

The Open Source Initiative’s mission will be to own and defend the Open Source trademark, to manage the resources, to develop branding programs attractive to software customers and producers, and to advance the cause of open-source software and serve the hacker community in other appropriate ways.”

Sounds great. My first question directed to the OSI – where were you – in “policing” the proliferation of licenses? Martin Fink, former vice president of Linux at Hewlett-Packard, had foreshadowed what would happen if the OSI failed to assume a leadership role on this critical issue:

“This current path of approving licenses–based simply on the compliance to a specification rather than on the basis of a new license’s ability to further innovate the business model of the open source industry–represents to me a clear and present danger to the very core of what makes open source work,” Fink said. “If this is the path the OSI continues to choose, then it is choosing a path towards irrelevance.”

While a proliferation statement was eventually posted, an unintended consequence of the license proliferation problem has led to a much more serious problem now – the use of the term “open source” itself. My question for the OSI now – where are you – in “policing” the appropriate use of the term? I thought the whole point of trademarking in general, and for making the effort to trademark the term “open source” specifically, was to help avoid market confusion as to the source, purity, and meaning of the mark. Trademark law imposes a duty on the trademark owner to police the mark in the marketplace. In fact, I would argue that OSI’s ongoing lack of recent leadership in this area is hurting the very definition of the term, its appropriate usage, and the relevancy of the branding associated with the term “open source”.

These comments are not meant to be critical of the OSI for sins of commission, but rather to encourage greater awareness of the sins of omission (and subsequently, an important leadership opportunity). The OSI is THE organization that is uniquely positioned to do something meaningful and “advance the cause” for the larger open source community. I would suggest that the OSI has two important, tangible, and inter-related tasks at hand: 1)continue to deal with the license proliferation issue, and 2) address the market confusion over “open source” as a business term. If the OSI license certification issues could be dealt with, perhaps the next task would be to create an “OSI Certified Business” service mark. To earn this designation you would have to have some minimal recognizable and community accepted features. This policing of the term would remove the sheisters, the free riders, and the mutant forms of open source that tried to get passed off as legit open source businesses to customers, the community, and the industry.

With so much dilution of the term, I am concerned it is fast becoming irrelevant (Perhaps Stallman was right.)

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