OSI Board Pledges Allegiance to Open Source Definition, Now and Forever

Illustration of the Cnut and the Waves episode by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, courtesy of the Wikimedia CommonsEverything changes over time, from the constitutions of nations to political theories. Should the Open Source Software Definition be any different?

Earlier this week the Board of Directors of the Open Source Initiative issued an Affirmation of the Open Source Definition, inviting others to endorse the same position. The stated purpose of the release was to underline the importance of maintaining the open source software (OSS) definition in response to what the directors see as efforts to “undermine the integrity of open source.” Certainly, that definition has stood the test of time, and OSI has ably served as the faithful custodian of the definition of what can and cannot be referred to as OSS.

That said, while well-intentioned, the statement goes too far. It also suggests that the directors would do well to reflect on what their true role as custodians of the OSS definition should be.

That becomes apparent in the opening lines of the press release, where the directors anchor their argument on the concept that the OSS definition is a standard, and that standards can never change. Which is nonsense. True, they use metric system standards as the basis for their metaphor, but that’s exactly the wrong basis for comparison because the OSS definition refers not to an immutable physical property, but to the consensus of a set of individuals at a certain point in time regarding a set of goals and values.

In fact, weights and measures are some of the few standards that should never change. Just about every other type of standard in existence needs to change, and does change, in order to maintain its value. Indeed, most standards bodies institutionalize the process of monitoring the continuing relevance of standards, requiring that they be regularly reviewed and updated to make sure that they are as useful and up to date as possible.

The same is true for definitions that represent the consensus of society, or some subset of society, about strongly held beliefs, values and ethics. Religions evolve; philosophies evolve; indeed, everything evolves to reflect the evolving understanding that humanity has of itself and the experience of human existence. This is as true of the US Constitution as it is of the GPL, which also, of course, has evolved. And before the board states that there can be only one definition of OSS, they should see if Richard Stallman would agree with their definition.

In point of fact, it’s naïve and even offensive to claim that there can be only one definition of a set of values. Stated another way, it’s absurd to say that unlike religious, political, philosophical and every other sort of beliefs, there is something unique about OSS, or only one way to recognize the rights of software developers.

That type of orthodoxy only infringes on free speech and discourages innovation and progress. The authors of the US Constitution knew better, addressing the issue by making sure that while change should be difficult – requiring approval by a super majority of both houses of Congress and by two-thirds of the states – it should also be possible to amend that fundamental statement of rights and principles. Even religions evolve, some through formal processes where doctrinal changes are considered, debated and then announced.

I am therefore particularly troubled by the following lines in the Directors’ press release:

Recently there have been efforts to undermine the integrity of open source by claiming there is no need for a single, authoritative definition. These efforts are motivated by the interests of a few rather than the benefit of all, and are at odds with the principles that have so demonstratively served us well in the past decades. If allowed to continue, these efforts will erode the trust of both users and contributors, and hinder the innovation that is enabled by open source software, just as surely as having multiple definitions of a kilogram would erode and undermine commerce.

I do not know what statements the press release is referring to, and whose statements they are. Certainly, I have heard many statements from many players during my career that indeed were meant to undermine OSS. Happily, those statements did not slow down the progress of OSS and OSS principles in the marketplace. Clearly, OSS and its supporters are more than strong enough to tolerate whatever its opponents may try to throw at it.

I am also troubled by statements that unnamed persons have evil intentions. Who are they, and how do you know that? The world of OSS is far too prone to flame wars as it is, and this type of statement can have both an inflammatory and a chilling effect. Statements like from a respected source like this can stifle free speech and honest debate.

The last point I will make is that, just like the GPL in its successive versions, there’s far more to be gained than lost by allowing new ideas – including new licensing models – to be offered and either flourish or fail.  To my mind, the same concept of meritocracy that applies within a project should apply to the debate over licensing principles and licenses, too. 

If the OSI board views its role as being to protect the specific words of the OSS definition as it exists today and to denigrate the views of people that might honestly have a different opinion, then I expect that we may someday see a fork of the OSS definition, and perhaps the founding of another OSI-like entity to act as the custodian of that definition. If so, and especially if that new entity assumes a more open attitude, then OSI may find that this week it has sown the seeds of its own future irrelevancy.

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