Respect OSI Authoritah! …Please?

When Michael Tiemann, President of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), rose up and smote the world-be open source vendors of the world last week, I was initially very happy. I cannot tell you how often I am in a briefing with someone and have rolled my eyes when they tout their company’s product as “open source” when it is so clearly not.

This is not just the CRM vendors, who seem to be bearing the brunt of the blame for abusing the open source term. I get this sort of thing from all sorts of vendors, particularly embedded software firms.

You might wonder why you haven’t seen many of these so-called open source firms featured on LT or LinuxPlanet; it’s usually because I either won’t take these briefings any more or, if the PR person doing the interview has fooled me into thinking the product is really open source, I typically stop the interview right then and there and move on to something more important.

So, yes, I was pleased to hear the OSI would be cracking down on the flagrant use of “open source” in the marketplace. I only have one problem: since OSI was the organization that let the proliferation of licenses happen in the first place, I think their efforts will be too little, too late.

Here’s where things stand. According to Tiemann, in the past, when a vendor got a little loose with the open source definition for their license, the OSI would send a note to that vendor and politely ask them to knock it off. The vendor, also according to Tiemann, would either cease promoting their license as open source or switch to one of the approved licenses.

What Tiemann seems to have forgotten was the third option quite a few companies seemed to take: get their so-called open source license approved with the o-fficial hunky-dorey OSI stamp of approval. This is evidenced by the sheer number of approved licenses.

Right now, according to the OSI, there are 58(!) approved open source licenses. That, if I may say, is a heck of a lot of licenses. And, as many have long feared, there are so many licenses under the Open Source Definition, the very Definition may be too watered down to even matter.

Tiemann has asked that since a number of vendors in the CRM space have decided not to recognize the authority of the OSI in dropping the term “open source” from their marketing, we in the community help OSI police these rascally varmints. Specifically, he requests:

So here’s what I propose: let’s all agree–vendors, press, analysts, and others who identify themselves as community members–to use the term ‘open source’ to refer to software licensed under an OSI-approved license.

That’s a pretty reasonable request on the surface. But as a member of the press, I have to ask Tiemann under what legal right the OSI has to make such a request?

Once, many years ago, I received a form letter at the newspaper I managed from Xerox. The letter from Xerox politely reminded our publication not to use the term “xerox” in our editorial content when referring to photocopying. It wasn’t aimed at us, specifically; it was just a standard please respect our trademark letter. And, I did respect it, because (a) Xerox clearly owned the term and (b) in Western Indiana there wasn’t a lot of photocopying machines in those days.

But note: OSI does not own the copyright on the term “open source”; the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled the term was too broad for one organization to latch onto. So, if I were being a legalistic SOB, I would ignore Tiemann’s request outright.

However, I am not a legalistic SOB. I want to help out the community as much as I can. The sheer number of OSI-approved licenses, however, gives me great pause. Why, with so many OSI licenses already out there, aren’t the CRM vendors licenses considered to be open source?

I know the answer to this, of course: these licenses don’t follow the Open Source Definition exactly. But to many outsiders looking in, fact that the code can be seen and shared in some fashion sure sounds open. While I don’t agree with the abuse of “open source,” OSI is going to have an uphill perception battle to fight to clear up the intricacies of just what is truly open source. I think the vendors in question know this, and are willing to take on the OSI.

(Which brings me to another question, if we should not label these companies’ products as open source, what should we call them? Shared source, and hope they don’t get confused with Microsoft’s products? Faux source, perhaps?)

The problem as I see it is that in clearing so many different flavors of open source licenses, the OSI has essentially let the genie out to the bottle. Now it is too easy for an unofficial open source vendor to say, “if this license is valid, why can’t mine be?” Never mind the Open Source Definition, since the general public never cares about that. If a marketing repo says the product is “open source,” and the customer can indeed see and use the source code, then that’s all that will really matter.

Keep in mind, I am writing this and I want the abuse of “open source” to stop. I believe in the mission of the OSI to manage licenses and decide what is really open source. But I cannot ignore the fact that the mistakes of OSI’s past may make this mission very hard, and perhaps impossible, to accomplish.

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