Why I Don't Support The OSI But Am Now A Member Anyway 2019-03-12

The Open Source Initiative was founded two decades ago to defend and evangelize Open Source software. At the time, open source was a young upstart, pushing back against a nearly insurmountable tide of software vendors who were looking to maintain their (very profitable) status quo. Fast forward 21 years and open source has, by any metric, won. Sure there is plenty of non-open software out there, but I would challenge anyone to find a company that doesn’t use at least some open source, or any large company that doesn’t accept open source is as good or better than non-open options for many tasks. With this transition, the role of the OSI has slowly shifted too. Rather than having to defend the very concept of open source as viable, they now describe themselves as “the stewards of the Open Source Definition (OSD) and the community-recognized body for reviewing and approving licenses as OSD-conformant”. They are still definitely also respected as evangelists for the open source community as a whole. but a large part of their role has become, to put it plainly, gatekeepers.

I think it is long past time for the open source community to take a long, hard look at the Open Source Definition and if it is doing more harm than good in its current form. Specifically I think it is time to retire rules 5 and 6: No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups or Fields of Endeavor. Before I jump into explaining what I’m sure is a very inflammatory statement to some, let’s look back at where these rules came from. The OSD was largely informed by the Debian Free Software Guidelines, a set of rules formalize what the Debian project considers “free software” (they do not use the term open source to avoid wading into this minefield) fairly specifically for the purposes of determining how to package software in Debian. That’s it, it’s a narrow document with a fairly tight scope. It’s also heavily informed by the specific requirements of being a bulk software redistributor. For example the Debian project has no issues with software licensed only to one person, but they know that if they uploaded that software to their package repository it would probably result in a lawsuit. In this context, rules 5 and 6 make complete sense, they are not making any claims that the DFSG can or should be taken as anything but the packaging policy for a Linux distro.

But what about the OSD? A license being vetted by the OSI as not open source (i.e. not compliant with the OSD) comes with some serious penalties. Many large companies have offloaded the vetting of licenses and flat-out won’t allow non-OSD-compliant software. This is a much larger scope than the DFSG from whence they came, clearly.

By way of specific examples: I think it should be entirely okay to have an open source project that does not allow its use by military organizations. Are there a giant pile of practical concerns with any such license? Absolutely. Should it allow military-adjacent civilian agencies? How about contractors? What about law enforcement? Writing a license that covers all of those bases (and more) is an incredibly difficult proposition and I don’t know of any that currently exist. But as a thought experiment, if such a license did exist, would it be fair to call that not open source? Users still have all the same freedoms, we’ve just restricted who can be a user? I come down heavily on the side of that project still being open source, and I think that gatekeeping of the OSI is hurting our community by restricting these kinds of experiments in ethics-driven licensing.

Or the other example I’m sure a lot of you had already started thinking about: the anti-Amazon licenses. Redis and others have made headlines recently by moving some of their code under licenses that are very clearly designed to disallow use by specific companies (though none I know of call those companies out by name as that would be a PR nightmare). Again, there are a ton of practical concerns with these licenses, and I don’t actually think Commons Clause is very well constructed or helpful, but I support their goals. Companies like Amazon (and also almost every company ever) are profit maximization engines. They will take whatever value they can from open source to the exact amount we let them. And just like the last example, I think we should be letting people try to experiment with these kinds of licenses. As before, the OSI gets used as a cudgel to beat down anything that doesn’t comply with a fairly narrow and absolutist view of what is or isn’t open source.

For a more concrete example, there is the Creative Commons family of licenses. Most of the CC licenses do not comply with the OSD in part because they do violate the discrimination rules. The historical justification for this was that OSD is about code and CC is about content, but if those ever existed as distinct categories, they are definitely deep into a shared gray area these days. Continuing to treat software and content as silos weakens both, and adds little.

So why did I write all this, and give the OSI forty of my hard-earned dollars? Because a friend of mine, Elana Hashman, is running for a seat on the OSI board of directors. We don’t agree on everything about the future direction of open source, as I’m sure you can tell just from reading these two statements, but I trust her immensely to fight to put the OSI on a better path. I’m personally more of a “burn it to the ground and salt the earth” kind of guy, but I don’t think that will be a productive approach here, so I would like to see if Elana can at least move the needle a bit before we all get out the torches and pitchforks. I’ll also add that another long-time friend, Van Lindberg, is also running and you should definitely vote for him too. Hopefully an infusion of new viewpoints into the OSI leadership can help get things back on track for what is going to be a very complicated future for open source, with many new trials and tribulations. We will always need evangelists and leaders in our collective open source community. But I think the inflexibility of the OSI as it stands today is hurting us and has become its own problematic status quo just as the big vendors were in 1998.

If you would also like to be able to vote in this upcoming board election, for $40 you can join as an individual member. You can vote in the election if you join any time before March 14th. If you do, tell them Elana sent you, and that you too hope to see the OSI better fulfill its role as a steward of our community, not a gatekeeper.

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