A new and better Open Source Initiative | Opensource.com

A new and better Open Source Initiative

Posted 13 Jun 2010 by 

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When I said recently that we still need the Open Source Initiative (OSI), it started a flood of comment. There's no doubt that we need OSI - but we need a better OSI. The one we have now is just too small to be effective and too mired in past successes; a renaissance is needed. You can help.

Yesterday and Today

OSI was formed in 1998 to solve a pressing problem. The founders embraced the ideals of software freedom, but saw that businesses - being non-persons - lacked any way to embrace a philosophical principle. To advance software freedom, it needed to be pragmatically "projected" onto the surface of the computer industry of 1998. The result was a focus on a certain kind of advocacy, plus an enormously valuable effort to analyse, categorise and selectively endorse copyright licenses. OSI was the pragmatic projection of software freedom onto the computer industry of 1998.

But in 2010, the industry has changed. It's due in no small part to the effects of software freedom on technology and innovation, with the pragmatic liberties it guarantees seeding today's key trends. It's also in part due to the attempted corruption of open standards and the policies that rely on them, which has allowed proprietary software an undeserved ascendancy. So while new businesses are able to be formed with philosophical and ethical principles embedded in their DNA, existing ones still can't "embrace software freedom" since that's a capability only of intelligent individuals.

Today we have a mature understanding of open source issues and licensing that means the advocacy initiatives of 1999 are less necessary and the license approval role has changed. The growth of cloud computing - even with open APIs and open data - means that liberty assurance mechanisms based only on source code are inadequate to identify the presence of software freedom. And the maturity of the open source market means the 'games' that existing corporations play on the market are sophisticated enough to use open source as a corporate weapon instead of as a path to liberty.


We need to repeat the exercise of projecting software freedom onto its surface, reinventing OSI to steward the resulting activities. That may well mean:

  • addressing today's trends, such as open data and open cloud computing;
  • increasing consumer awareness of open source and the four freedoms (beyond the code and the geeks);
  • educating the next generation of computer science graduates (many of whom think open source or free software just mean "Linux");
  • dealing with the engagement of powerful industry corporations such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle and SAP;
  • expanding resources for government and NGOs to adopt and institute open source programs;
  • sustaining license review activities, which remain a key function for OSI (but now with an emphasis on avoiding new licenses unless they are essential).

However OSI is formed with a board which is the de facto entire volunteer base. There is also a "chicken and the egg" problem that there is no clear door into OSI so there is no one to form an electorate and there is no "new blood". OSI has been trying to fix this but it requires work. The first attempt the Board made involved inviting 50 people to discuss the problem in an online forum last year. This didn't devise a new governing membership body, but did work through all of the possible ways OSI could be governed and more effective.

Change Inevitable

Change is now inevitable because the board recently passed rules imposing term limits to make room for new blood. A significant number of long-term Board members retire this year and next. So it's vital that a plan for OSI's future be devised. As I have said before, I'm convinced that future has to be membership-based, with a Board that represents people working on grass-roots software freedom matters.

Which is where you come in. Plenty of people spent time here and on Slashdot throwing rocks at OSI - many deserved - but there's an opportunity to join in to fix things. At the last Board meeting I was asked to get a group together to draw up a new, member-led governance charter for OSI. We've got a good idea of the outline thanks to the earlier work, but there need to be smart, informed people with a heart for software freedom from around the world involved to draft and write the details. Is that you?

We are also keen to see more people involved in other aspects of OSI. If you have experience with writing charters, administering servers, web design, trademark policy or any other aspect of the renewal of OSI, then please write to me, webmink at opensource dot org, or contact the OSI Board.

I'm sure the criticism of OSI will continue, but there's an opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Will you take it?

[First published by ComputerWorldUK on June 14, 2010]


Venkatesh Hariharan (Venky)

Open Source is no longer a niche phenomena, it is becoming an integral part of the information society. The current structure of OSI does not reflect this change. OSI's mission should be to accelerate the penetration of open source ideals and technology in our society. An active OSI can do a tremendous amount of good for open source around the world through advocacy, research, being a catalyst for OSS projects in areas like education, e-government etc. This requires full-time staff, a fund raising plan and a driven programmatic approach, all of which are lacking today. While, OSI has done a tremendous amount of good and its current leaders are a terrific set of individuals, it needs to grow up as an institution. The gap between the benefits it could bring to society and what it does now is really huge and I'd be happy to be part of any effort to bridge this gap. The caveat is that open source evangelists like me find that our time is getting more and more thinly sliced. Whatever mechanism OSI creates should empower us and not divide our time into thinner slices. Again, in a circular way, this is where an institutional mechanism comes in.

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Don Barry

When the OSI was formed in 1998, one of its two directors referred to the GPL license as a virus. Since then, there have been contretemps with embarrassing executive directors, high profile defections, and a constant orientation to corporate interests rather than those of coders.

Indeed, they contributed nothing to the pre-existing Free Software world, and at best only appropriated parts of
it with relabeling (as in the mention of the Four Freedoms
mentioned above -- something they had absolutely nothing to do with). The rest of the time, they have had a parasitic relationship, attempting to coopt a model in which whose creation they played no role.

Perhaps Simon's initiative indeed will reinvent the OSI.

But we didn't need them in 1998 -- and we don't need them now.

Their overall thrust has only been to dilute the ethical values underpinning free software by vaguely mentioning practical benefits while shoving the ethical imperative under the rug. I would celebrate their folding up their traveling carpet and dischartering. The Free Software Foundation is quite capable, and in fact infinitely more trustworthy as stewards of of the ethics and guidelines governing free software.

"Open Source" is meaningless or worse.

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Venkatesh Hariharan (Venky)

I think the author of this article was looking for ***constructive*** suggestions.

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Staf Verhaegen

For me open source has a clear reason of existence. I don't believe that free software is the only ethical way to produce software. I do believe in the tit-for-that principle of open source: I will give you my code on the condition that you give your improvements back to me and to the users of the program.
To me open source and free code should live in a good competition to other code; if in the end only open source code remains it should be for technical superiority not because of certain believe in so-called ethical values.
Not connecting ethical values to source code is IMO an essential difference between the open source movement and the free software movement; not just 'shoving the ethical imperative under the rug'.
In this respect I hope OSI 2.0 does not move in the direction of FSF.

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Open Minded

Simon, your article carves a nice pathway between the English lexicon mess around free and open. In my opinion, there still exists a need for an OSI to be a vanguard of open source, open data, open access, open... Specifically because there continues to be so much appreciation for software freedom while being afraid of the wording, while there is so much confusion around 'free' and 'open' and 'fauxpen' and 'things that claim openness but really aren't', I think we need the open source terminology for a while longer.

As Michael Tiemann has said, the 'free software' brand has worked great for hackers, and the 'open source' brand has worked great for business. It is a good thing to have the OSI extend to other technology domains needing clarity of practice around applying the open source way.

Not sure what there is I can do, but I also would like to help, with the caveat like Venky's -- let's find a way that this helps folks like us combine time slices (three birds, one stone.)

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Stuart Gathman

One of the most useful roles of a body like OSI is to standardize terms. Even if everyone thinks the official definition is dumb, it is still useful to have it nailed down (e.g. the term US term "natural" applied to food products). Vendors and advertisers need to be called on the carpet when they misuse terms. (Like using "free" to equivocate on "libre" vs "gratis" in a context where they are trying to sound "open" but aren't.)

Staf said, "I don't believe that free software is the only ethical way to produce software." I agree, and the core component is truth in advertising. Even DRM (The Evil) can be ethical provided the transaction is not represented as a "sale". For instance, DRM on streaming rentals to closed devices doesn't mislead anyone into thinking they are getting anything more that a "view". DRM on videos "sold" to unsuspecting consumers is another matter.

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Computer industry veteran Simon Phipps has been involved at a strategic level in some of the world’s leading technology companies for decades. He has worked in such hands-on roles as field engineer, programmer and systems analyst, as well as run a software publishing company. He worked with networking standards in the eighties, on the first commercial collaborative conferencing software in the nineties, and helped introduce both Java and XML at IBM.

He takes an active interest in