Open Source Initiative
formed almost ten years ago to safeguard the "Open Source" name. Over the
years it has approved licenses and attempted some other activities while,
generally, having little relevance to the wider community. It has often
been seen as a relatively closed and non-democratic organization. Now one
of OSI's founders is trying to get back into the organization and change
its direction; the outcome of the resulting discussion may (or may not)
change the direction of the OSI.
Bruce Perens has launched a bid to be elected to the OSI
board of directors, but this bid has
not been particularly well received by the current board. His on-line petition to collect community support
specifies a number of reasons that he wants to be on the board—those
reasons are ruffling some feathers. Outgoing board member Matt Asay has taken Perens to
task for some of his statements as has OSI president
Perens's reasons for wanting to be on the board are threefold: reducing the
over-representation of vendors, trying to ensure Microsoft does not get a
seat on the board, and reducing license proliferation. The idea of a Microsoft seat on
an open source organization's board is sure to rile a segment of the
community, which is undoubtedly part of what Perens is hoping for. The
likelihood of that happening is pretty small, though. Tiemann makes it
clear that the board doesn't elect companies at all:
The OSI nominates people to the board despite their corporate affiliations,
not because of them. The idea that the OSI would elect a "Microsoft" board
member is as absurd as the idea that we'd elect a "Google" board member or
an "IBM" board member. We elect people based on their own merits, not the
merits (or demerits) of the companies or organizations they are affiliated
Microsoft and its employees do not currently contribute to open source in
way, so there is little that would lead the board to nominate them. If that ever
changes, it would be pretty disingenuous to deny someone a seat because of
their employer's past—or even at that time,
current—misbehavior. In addition, it is hard
to see how one board member—Perens or someone "controlled" by
Microsoft—is going to make such a crucial difference in what the board
does anyway. In many ways, the Microsoft connection is
a red herring—one sure to rally the troops, though.
Reducing license proliferation is a noble goal, one that the OSI tried to
tackle a few years back without much in the way of tangible success.
Perens states that he would like to see OSI do more reduce the number of
licenses, but his claims about the number of licenses needed have raised
Another problem is the failure to reduce the number of different licenses
in general use. My own work in this area shows that only four licenses, all
compatible with each other, can satisfy all common business and
non-business purposes of Open Source development. Three of these licenses
have essentially the same text, and the fourth is very short. Life would be
easier if more projects used them. While it would be difficult to shut down
approval of new licenses, I think OSI could be more proactive at reducing
Part of the reason that Tiemann and others are skeptical is due to some
obvious bad blood between the board and Perens over the license
proliferation committee. LWN covered some of that "debate" in
August 2005. Perens clearly believes he should have been a
member just as strongly as others on the board seem to feel he should not
have been. When the board was formed without him as a member, Perens
refused to participate in the process in any way. It
seems to stick in the craw of some for Perens to now claim that he has the
solution. Russ Nelson, former OSI president and current board
member—as well as a member of the committee—sums up the
frustration in a comment on Tiemann's post:
I don't see how Bruce can claim to have a short list of four licenses. I
start with BSD, GPLv2, GPLv3, LGPLv2 and LGPLv3 and that's five. If he
thinks that people should simply agree with him that all GPLv2 should be
relicensed GPLv3, I invite him to spend some time with Linus Torvalds, who
notoriously and politely disagrees.
Having a solution is not the same as convincing people to adopt it.
It is rather interesting to see Perens trying to get back on the board that
he famously resigned from in 1999
after having founded the organization with Eric Raymond in 1998. This is
not the first time Perens has lost interest and/or resigned from some form of community
leadership position; Debian and UserLinux spring to mind. Though none of
the expressed concerns about his candidacy have mentioned it, some must be
wondering how long it would be before ideology or a shifting focus caused
Perens to move on from a board position if he were elected.
Perens has been an excellent advocate for free software and/or open source
over the years, but his tendency towards self-promotion
grates on some. It may not be an ego thing, as he claims, but it certainly
rubs some people the wrong way. The ego issue is one of the reasons that board observer Andrew Oliver does
not support Perens for the board:
A return to a very Amerocentric hacker culture voice with big egos is not
the answer to OSI's problems. I think OSI is on the path to real
fundamental change. I'd like to hear Bruce explain what he'd do differently
in collaboration with others who may not always agree with him.
Asay certainly doesn't see Perens as
having the right credentials either:
The OSI needs a vibrant membership of those currently shaping the open
source landscape. It's possible that its current make-up doesn't reflect
this. Point well taken. But it's equally possible - indeed, I'd say
probable - that Bruce's directorship wouldn't change this. I like Bruce but
aside from the occasional picketing he does, I can't point to anything
substantive he has done for open source in the past half-decade or so.
The petition drive came about because Tiemann encouraged Perens to show
that there was strong community support for him to be a part of the board.
As of this writing, the petition has garnered more than 1700 "signatures",
which Perens believes is enough:
Regarding my candidacy, OSI's board, through its president, asked me to
show an uprising of strong community support if the board was to to elect
me. I have. Now that I have done what you asked, are you going to hide
behind complaints about my campaign, which is really quite mild in its
criticism and is in no way the "scorched earth" that Matt refers to, or are
you going to do what you said? If you OSI can't handle a political opponent
on my laid-back scale, you'd only looking for yes-men.
The OSI board is "self-replacing" with current board members nominating and
electing candidates for empty slots. Each director serves for a three-year
term, with roughly one-third coming up for election each year—though
this year there are five slots to be filled. Three directors are standing
for re-election, leaving two slots open. Unfortunately, it's not clear
when the actual election will be held, nor is there likely to be any
advance notice of who has been nominated. Transparency, it seems, is not
one of the attributes of OSI.
Self-replacement and overlapping terms of office tend to give a certain
stability to a board, but it also creates a kind of inbreeding. It is
unlikely that a board will nominate people who think substantially
differently from themselves. This is one thing that Perens is trying to
circumvent with his very public candidacy. Whatever else can be said about
Perens's candidacy, it is clear that he would bring a different voice into
the OSI boardroom.
But, what is OSI really? Is it an organization that is somehow
supposed to represent all of the diverse voices in the community? At the moment it appears to exist for
the purpose of approving licenses and "protecting the Open Source Definition".
Perens thinks it could be more than that. OSI itself seems to agree as
they have been moving towards more relevance in the community. Oliver
describes that effort:
OSI is trying to solve its problems, by becoming more grassroots and less
bottom up. Meanwhile, it is trying to grow the movement by expanding its
international representation. Corporations do influence OSI, in that not
all of the board has a free hand to say what is on their mind
publicly. However, the solution is to make the OSI board what it should
be: a governance board.
OSI and its board are currently in a state of flux, trying to define a
role for themselves that is broader than just a license approval body. There
doesn't seem to be a lot of discontent within the board that might
lead to Perens or another controversial figure being added. Whether this
leads to continued stagnation or a more vibrant OSI remains to be seen. A
more interesting question might be: will anyone care?
If OSI starts to do visible things for the community, it will finally
acquire some relevance. Given the attitude towards his candidacy, it seems
unlikely that Perens will be able to lead the board in that direction.
Which leaves it up to the current board and the two new
members—neither of which are likely to be Perens—to find a way
to make the community care.
to post comments)