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Karen Sandler on what we mean by "we"

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By Nathan Willis
June 18, 2014
TXLF 2014

Identity can be a nebulous issue for the free and open-source software (FOSS) community, perhaps in part because of how different FOSS is from other communities. Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) explored that topic from several angles during her keynote talk, "Identity crisis: are we who we say we are?" at the fifth annual Texas Linux Fest in Austin. In particular, the FOSS community often speaks of itself as a monolithic "we," but defining who "we" means is a tricky task in many FOSS contexts, she said. There are blurry boundaries, multiple roles, and overlapping objectives that permeate many FOSS projects, and the language used can exacerbate real-world problems.

Sandler started her talk by noting that she currently has many roles herself. In addition to her role as Executive Director of SFC, she was recently elected to the Board of the GNOME Foundation (where she previously served as Executive Director), is a practicing attorney in New York, and is associated with several other organizations, such as the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and QuestionCopyright.Org. But in spite of her extensive experience with FOSS, she said, it is really only in the past year or so that she has really felt like she has gotten a handle on the complicated issues of identity and representation.

In March, she taught a seminar on legal ethics in free software on behalf of the Free Software Foundation. The seminar was a professional "continuing education" course (which practicing attorneys are required to complete a certain number of in order to maintain their certification), and although she initially worried that the time she spent preparing the material would prove boring, it turned out to be fascinating, since it highlighted just how differently FOSS does things from the rest of the world. To begin with, there are blurry lines everywhere in FOSS: between what is personal and what is professional, between volunteers and paid contributors, between non-profit organizations and for-profit companies, and even between the ideological and commercial goals that motivate the work.

Still, she said, "we say 'we' a lot," and figuring out who "we" is in any one instance can be difficult. As a lawyer, she continued, she has to think about the question in strict terms, since attorneys have definite legal obligations to their clients and rules they must abide by. For instance, she noted that strangers often come up to her at FOSS events and start to share "juicy gossip" about projects and companies. She stops them and asks whether they should be telling their story, and often hears a reply like "it's okay: you're my lawyer." In fact, Sandler said, she does not represent everyone in the FOSS world, and for those clients she does represent, she has obligations to protect their interests, which may include giving the client information that she learned from someone else.

But figuring out who you represent can be confusing in FOSS, she said. Other fields are all about keeping things secret, but FOSS wants to work in the open. Even within a project, the lines between client and outsider can be fuzzy; Sandler said she once had a conversation with a Red Hat employee about a legal question relating to the GNOME project, and had to tell the person she was required to take the question to Red Hat's legal team instead. Ethics rules dictate that an attorney speak only to another party's attorney (and not to the person involved) once they know the other party has representation.

Organizations, communities, and friends

Of course, many organizations exist in the FOSS universe, which can help to draw clearer lines about who is and is not "we" in a given context. But the various legal forms these organizations take affects matters deeply. Some organizations, for instance, are 501(c)(3) charities acting "for the public good," while others are 501(c)(6) trade associations, which act in the interests of the members to promote a business goal. Each type of organization is appropriate in some circumstances, yet in FOSS their goals can seem to align (such as promoting free software adoption in businesses) while they remain quite different from a legal standpoint.

The differences between the various types of non-profit organization are most certainly important to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), she explained. FOSS projects' rhetoric of "changing the world" may be genuine idealism, she said, but it sounds virtually identical to every for-profit tech company's advertising, too. A few years back, the IRS started taking a hard look at the various FOSS non-profit filings, apparently out of concern over whether they were genuinely doing their work for "the public good." Naturally, the agency found the question confusing; it tried to find clear lines—such as saying that a project using a copyleft license was a "public good" project, while one using a permissive license was interested in proprietarization and, thus, a trade association. But such simple rules do not encompass the wide range of ideas about licensing, Sandler said; one cannot blame the IRS for being confused, and many of the FOSS non-profit applications take a long time to process as a result.

In addition to an organization's purpose, what constitutes "we" also concerns how and why individuals choose to participate in FOSS. When Canonical rolled out its Unity desktop interface in 2011, Sandler was Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation. Since Unity was an alternative to the recently-released GNOME Shell, it was already a move of considerable interest to her in her role at GNOME, but Sandler said she also found it surprising that so many in the Ubuntu community did not object to contributing their effort to a for-profit company's project. So she went to the next Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) hoping to get a feel for the community's stance. Over the course of UDS, she said, she had many conversations with her assigned roommate (a motivated Ubuntu volunteer), in particular asking the roommate about her motivations for contributing. Fundamentally, Sandler said, the roommate's answer was "because my friends are part of this community."

Being with one's friends is a major motivator for participating, but it is also something that makes FOSS distinct. Sandler noted the well-publicized incident at a recent PyCon where two people joking with each other were overheard by someone else, and a contentious conference-harassment incident resulted. FOSS makes the line between personal and professional blurry, Sandler observed. Many of us like to go see our friends at FOSS events, she said; we even invite FOSS friends to personal events like birthday parties, and we work from "home offices." In addition, we also "play musical chairs" a lot, moving to different employers even while continuing to work on the same project.

We are even conflicted at times about who we are as individuals. She quoted ownCloud's Frank Karlischek, who said that in his startup sometimes he is an "evil capitalist" and sometimes an "ideological free software guy." Within the FOSS community, it can even be hard to tell which role someone is in from minute to minute. There are also developers who get paid by a company to work on code then work on the same code at night. The confusion this causes was pointed out in the Debian project's recent init system debate, when some people said that it was not clear when other people were expressing their personal views and when they were expressing their company's views. On the other hand, asking what "hat" another party was wearing for a particular comment was also seen as a type of attack.


Coping with these sorts of uncertainties is one of the reasons that FOSS projects have governance structures, Sandler said. Providing projects with assistance is why SFC was founded; it handles logistical duties (including fiscal oversight, conference travel, and even paid development contracts) for its 30-plus member projects, she said, but it also lets those projects make a statement about identity issues. Joining SFC allows a project to be clear that it is a charitable effort not controlled by a company, to commit its assets (financial and intellectual) to the social good, and to have a clearly defined "we" by establishing project governance and membership policies.

In addition to SFC's other operations—which Sandler described—the organization can help FOSS projects deal with some of the trickier identity questions. An example is trademarks, which she described as "a lot more important than you think they are." A common problem facing FOSS projects is that they are often started by a small, excited group of volunteers—who trust each other. Somewhere down the road as work progresses, the group decides it needs a trademark, which one person then registers as an individual. But sometimes those individuals subsequently form companies to do paid consulting work related to the project, and at that point the same individual owns the trademark and a company that conducts business related to it, which complicates matters for the community.

SFC is working to improve the services it offers, Sandler said, by publishing transparent annual reports to "show where the money goes," and by developing policies in the open, including keeping them in a public Git repository. She listed several other problems that still need to be addressed, such as policies about the default positions people speak from during public discussions (like Debian's init system debate), and better ways to handle the use of email addresses and aliases (which an audience member asked about in the Q&A period after the talk, concerned about when he could use his company email address for FOSS project work). She told attendees to "watch this space" for upcoming announcements about new efforts the SFC will be launching in the near term (while apologizing for making "one of those annoying 'pre-announcements'").

In the end, Sandler told the audience that she wants the FOSS community to "worry and not worry" about the complicated identity questions that surround it. People should worry, in the sense that they should think about the questions and try to get things right. But they should not worry, in the sense that they should know that the community is passionate about what it does and everyone else is trying to get things right, too.

(Log in to post comments)

Karen Sandler on what we mean by "we"

Posted Jun 21, 2014 1:07 UTC (Sat) by jberkus (subscriber, #55561) [Link]

Open source is now way too big to be a single community. Has been for years. We don't have a community, we have a *society*, with dozens to hundreds of little sub-communities, political factions, hereditary nobility, an economy, turf battles, crime, and social unrest.

Hmmm. I might have a keynote for myself, now ...

Karen Sandler on what we mean by "we"

Posted Jun 23, 2014 0:21 UTC (Mon) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

I'm not sure the society has been around long enough to see any "hereditary nobility" show up. hand picked successors yes, (i.e. adopted nobility), but even there the society requires competence from the leaders or it will start ignoring them pretty quickly.

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