The OSI calls "Foul!" on pseudo-open source

Michael Tiemann, president of the OSI, has decided to stop coddling fake open source companies and push for a new era of enforcement. Here's why he's right.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

It was just a matter of time. But eventually, it was bound to happen. Some in the industry have been playing fast and loose with the term "open source," and yesterday Michael Tiemann, president of the OSI, cried 'Foul!' on his blog. As Michael writes:

Starting around 2006, the term open source came under attack from two new and unanticipated directions: the first was from vendors who claimed that they have every bit as much right to define the term as does the OSI, and the second was from vendors who claimed that their license was actually faithful to the Open Source Definition (OSD), and that the OSI board was merely being obtuse (or worse) in not recognizing that fact. (At least one vendor has pursued both lines of attack.) This was certainly not the first attack we ever had to repel, but it is the first time we have had to confront agents who fly our flag as their actions serve to corrupt our movement. The time has come to bring the matter into the open, and to let the democratic light of the open source community illuminate for all of us the proper answer.

What has Michael's dander up? The routine labeling of non-open source software as open source. I've addressed this before, and continue to believe that it is critically important that we not confuse customers, developers, and ourselves with the term "open source." It means something very specific, which meaning arose in tandem with the OSI and the term "open source" itself. Many now involved in the "open source" software world were off doing other things in 1998 when the term "open source" was coined, but a short history lesson is available.

I don't personally believe that the companies that are diluting the term "open source" intend to do so. At least, not maliciously. I work with several of these companies and their intentions are good.

But what we need to remember that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions or, in this case, rampant confusion over open source. Microsoft was honest in calling its software licensing "shared source." I've heard others privately call these other open source-like licensing strategies "visible source." Either will do. But let's not call them open source, as Michael suggests:

...THESE LICENSES ARE NOT OPEN SOURCE LICENSES. This flagrant abuse of labeling is not unlike sweetening a mild abrasive with ethylene glycol and calling the substance Toothpaste. If the market is clamouring for open source...solutions, why are some companies delivering open source in name only and not in substance? I think the answer is simple: they think they can get away with it. As President of the OSI, I've been remiss in thinking that gentle but firm explanations would cause them to change their behavior. I have also not chased down and attempted to correct every reporter who propagates these misstatements.... I have now come to realize that if we don't call them out, then they will get away with it (at least until customers realize they've been fooled again, and then they'll blame both proprietary and open source vendors alike; they probably won't be particularly charitable with the press or careless industry analysts, either). If we don't respond to those in the press who fall (or are pushed) into these logical traps, we are betraying the community.

Some will respond, "But no one cares about open source, per se. They don't modify the source code. They just want software that is easier to download, try, and buy." This is true, so far as it goes. Which isn't very far, because it completely misses the point. It's about correct labeling so that all those who do care - and there are many, both on the customer and vendor side - aren't hurt by half-way open source.

I support Michael and the OSI in this renewed emphasis on enforcement. In fact, I support it because my company was once on the wrong side of the OSD, and got beat up for it. I am grateful that the OSI and the community stood firm. Our business has boomed as we moved away from lowest-common denominator open source to true, OSI-defined open source. Sales are up, leads are up, downloads are up, and morale is up.

The lesson is clear: burn the boats. You really don't need half-baked open source. The real deal is much more profitable. Just look at Red Hat, JBoss, and MySQL. I don't think it's a coincidence that those companies that take the OSD most seriously are also those that make the most money. Open source is software capitalism's friend.

[Note: I am on the board of the OSI.]