There has been significant conversation around the OSI of late, spurred by Bruce Perens campaign to become a board member. Having had a long history myself in Free and Open Source Software, the recent activity bears reflection and begs the question “What is the purpose of the Open Source Initiative?” Let’s take a look at the definition of Initiative (noun):
- an introductory act or step; leading action: to take the initiative in making friends.
- readiness and ability in initiating action; enterprise: to lack initiative.
When I think of the OSI, I think of an organization that started 10 years ago to help define a market around Open Source. That market is now booming, so what is their current “Initiative”? The protection of the term “Open Source”? This is contradictory in that to protect it, they chose echo-chamber myopia as their methodology.
I deeply respect every single one of the individuals associated with the current OSI. That bears repeating – I have only the utmost respect for all of the individuals currently working within the OSI. I’ve known most of them for quite some time, and I’ve never had much reason to differ in opinion. Last year, when the brouhaha over badgeware came to a head, I was asked for a quote on what I thought Open Source meant, and I replied that the OSI had every right to protect the definition. I still feel that way – I just wish the OSI would change with the times.
Like it or not, the term “Open Source” occupies a niche as the iconic open technology standard-bearer, so when the OSI refuses to play with the non-compliant software vendors, they end up tainting said vendors’ works by not supporting it. Thus, instead of SugarCRM simply having a badgeware license, they get branded and labeled as “fake” Open Source and inauthentic. So strange to see such strident action from an organization that purports to be the “business-friendly” face of Free Software. So bizarre to act against a company, SugarCRM, who sits far, far away from the proprietary pole on the openness spectrum. And why did this occur? Why, because SugarCRM dared to use a license, before it migrated to GPL v3, that didn’t strictly comply with the OSD. And where did the OSD come from? Was it handed down directly to Moses with the other 10 commandments? Well, no, unless there’s something about Bruce Perens I wasn’t aware of.
Frankly, I don’t get it. The OSI is, at its heart, an ideological institution masquerading as a pragmatic one. Viewed in the context of the split from the Free Software movement in 1998, this actually makes some logical sense. After all, the purpose of creating Open Source in the first place was to put a business-friendly face on Free Software. However, many Open Source newcomers wouldn’t know the difference between Richard Stallman or Richard Simmons, and the story of the Open Source – Free Software split is as relevant to them as historical documents from the protestant reformation. The bottom line is this: the Free Software Foundation and Free Software movement are far more relevant to us in 2008 than the OSI.
Technology and the market have come a long way from 1998 to 2008. Open Source is prevalent and growing. The thought leaders from 1998 need to reinvent themselves, their definition of open source and their initiative – just like all the free software companies are reinventing technology and business faster than their predecessors.
So what to do now? As I chuckle over the recent scorched earth campaign by Bruce Perens in an attempt to regain former glory, I’ve been thinking about some recent articles and blog posts which mention an “identity crisis” for Open Source. Upon further thought, I think there is an identity crisis at work, but it’s not merely the result of coming of age or losing authenticity, as suggested elsewhere. Rather, it is the result of a narrowing of thought, a failure to comprehend, and a willingness to remain blind to new information. It is the same type of thought that will lay down the law of what “open” means and reward those – and only those – who adhere to the OSD, without considering the possibility that new developments demand thoughtful reexamination of the rules. After all, because of the success of the term “Open Source”, the OSI *must* have been absolutely correct in its formulation and governance, right?
It’s time for a new initiative, one that takes a more flexible approach to the idea of open software and open technology. I would suggest using the Creative Commons as a possible template with its recognition that you can adjust the licensing terms based on use case, eg. stipulating non-commercial use downstream and precluding downstream commerce. A commenter on one blog* calls this “weakening their standards,” a willfully ignorant statement if I ever saw one.
No, I don’t call it “weakening their standards.” I call it “common sense.”
* Edit: I originally (and mistakenly) attributed this to Simon Phipps. That was incorrect.