Whither Initiative?

Written by John Mark
March 21st, 2008 | 10 Comments | Posted in Community, IT Industry

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):

  1. an introductory act or step; leading action: to take the initiative in making friends.
  2. 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.

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10 Responses to “Whither Initiative?”

  1. Bob Says:

    I sort of disagree.

    I do agree that the GPL, and the FSF are as relevant today as ever. I also agree that the OSI frequently gets in to semantics arguments.

    That said, what has really changed. When Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond started the OS movement, they wanted to show how the movement products and results were actually in business interests. They were right with that. That hasn’t changed. Not really. the freedoms of the GPL are valuable to business as well as to individuals. That is still true for Holywood, as well as high schoolers in search of a cool system.

    Weakening the protections written into the Open Source Definition will only erode and ultimatly eliminate the value that we as users find in the product.

    Weakening standards is not a good way to improve the standard.

    If someone wants to provide a package that limits what I can do with it only redices the value of that package to me. True whether I am a poor college student, or a Fortune 500 Corporation.

    We should remember that FOSS is not really about vendors, it is a revolution against control of users. Vendors have only themselves to blame if they find it stifling.

    Upset enough users, and some of them will be able to create an alternative. Improve that enough, in a continuous improvement process, and it will end up better for users than the original restricted product. That is what Free Software really is.

  2. Don Marti Says:

    I don’t get it.

    1. SugarCRM used a not-quite-open-source license.

    2. OSI decided not to call SugarCRM’s license “open source.”

    3. SugarCRM changed the license, to one that does pass the “open source” test.

    So…isn’t that a good thing? One fewer software license for users, customers, and potential contributors to have to understand.

    If you want to “adjust licensing terms based on use case”, I’m sure the Association of Shareware Professionals is still looking for members: asp-shareware.org

  3. John Mark Says:

    Hi Don,

    You’re assuming a link between #2 and #3 that doesn’t exist. John Roberts has stated flatly that they had planned to go with GPL3 all along.

    Also, there was much rancor at the time, and I always felt it was unfair to Sugar. I mean, why direct so much angst towards a company when they are substantially more open than others?

    As for asp-shareware… come on :) Although at least their intent is clear, that’s for sure.

    I don’t see why there can’t be a consortium or other organization that recognizes different levels of openness. To *not* do that means you’re lumping all non-open source into the same boat, and I don’t see the point.

    -John Mark

  4. Tarus Balog Says:

    I’m afraid I’m with Bruce on this one. The current meaning of “open source” has been diluted to be almost meaningless. I have a very exact meaning of the term in my mind, so having to create “different levels of openness” is a lot like creating different levels of “being pregnant”.

    It’s probably time to just start over with a new term and let the phrase “open source” be as broad as necessary. The best I can come up with is Uhuru Source but as much as I like it I doubt it will get much traction. (grin)

  5. Simon Phipps Says:

    John Mark: You say “Simon Phipps calls this “weakening their standards,” a willfully ignorant statement if I ever saw one.”

    I’d be pretty offended by this since I didn’t use the expression you “quote” if it were not for the fact you seem to have mistaken a comment to my blog by Rob Myers as my words. On the assumption it isn’t itself “willfully ignorant”, please can you change what you’ve written to correct your error?

  6. John Mark Says:

    Simon: My sincerest apologies. I could have sworn that was your comment in response to mine. I’m editing as I write this.

  7. Don Marti Says:

    JM, of course the thing that you end up doing is what you planned to do all along. That’s rule number one of Corporate Communications.

    And other companies have started off “open source” and ended up going the other way.

    “Hey, this box of cookies has WEEVILS in it!”

    “But we’ve made so much progress since the heavily weevil-infested ship’s biscuit of the days of sail! Chow down and stop being so narrow-minded!”

  8. John Mark Says:

    Tarus: the part I don’t understand is why it has to be a binary form of “with us or against us.” That may have made sense in 1998 when you could count on 2 hands the number of companies selling Free Software directly. Nowadays, there are several hundred, probably thousands.

    At the end of the day, I don’t see a use for a strident OSI when the FSF does a much better job of telling us what Free Software is about. I do think we need an industry consortium to step up and provide pragmatic descriptions of what it means to be open.

  9. Simon Phipps Says:

    Thanks for the correction, appreciated. I thought it was odd, because the first comment on the blog was from you and you seemed to like it!

    Personally I think the term “open source” still has plenty of life in it, and as evidence I note the fact so many businesses want to use it. What we need is a stronger OSI with an influential and respected leadership and, as I assert in that same blog, a set of guidelines for copyright, patent and trademark licensing that make sure those businesses who want to use the term are held to account for doing so.

    I am a bit mystified by Bruce’s desire to keep those same businesses out of the limelight, though. It seems to me that a strong board of influential individuals (regardless of employer) supplemented by a non-executive advisory board with paid seats is just what we need.

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