Things boiled over a bit last week with the announcement that Google launched the Open Usage Commons (OUC) consortium (see Mike Vizard’s article here). The announcement and subsequent angst it has caused has upset what had been a pretty stable environment that helped open source software become the dominant force in development and IT. While on its face OUC is about trademarks and usage guidelines, but make no mistake: This is about Google (and perhaps others) disagreeing with the management and direction of The Linux Foundation/Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).
Hand-in-hand with the OUC, Google also announced it was making changes in the board composition of the Istio project. A new formula based on code contributed by companies, as well as community seats selected by the community of other contributors, would determine who governs the project.
Together, this represents a clear bifurcation of managing the code of a project and the trademarks/IP of the project. This is not a new concept in open source, but in recent years has been seldom used. In probably the most famous example of this setup, Linus Torvalds controls a company that still owns the Linux mark, which the Linux Foundation manages it for him. It is separate from the Linux project itself, though.
The concept of the code being open and free while the project owners retaining the IP and trademarks was very much the norm in open source years ago. However, it led to many companies’ reluctance to contribute code to projects for which they had no say in the governance or usage of the marks. One of the benefits of the foundations such as CNCF, Cloud Foundry, Eclipse and others was that under their model, everyone had access to the same code base and mark usage rules. What you did on top of that was up to you. Ironically, this is the same argument we are hearing now regarding the changes to the Istio governing board and the OUC.
Perusing the Twittersphere on this subject turns up a few other issues that may be at play here:
- The CNCF and the Linux Foundation, by implication, may be a victim of its own success. The amount of money they have generated and their “marketing” profile seems to have turned some people off.
- The CNCF/Linux Foundation model of allowing major corporate contributors to, in essence, buy board seats and having just a minority of “at large” seats open to the community favors the big, rich vendors over the rest of the pack.
- New leadership at Google and Google Cloud are having second thoughts about turning over the fruits of their work to foundations that they eventually lose control over. Recent former Oracle management is being rumored behind this, though that is not confirmed. In this scenario, second doubts about Kubernetes and other Google-donated projects that are now out in the market without a Google edge are causing them to rethink their approach.
- Companies that rely on these open source projects and historically are decent corporate members, such as IBM, have been caught in the open here as evidenced by their reaction to the Istio affair.
What I do know is that the loser in all of this will be the community. Open source works best when there are stability and predictability over its future and governance. The broader the base of management and ownership of a project, the more willing corporate contributors are to participate and contribute. I would hate to see us return to the maze of the Cathedral and the Bazaar. I sincerely hope we are not seeing the end of the golden age of open source software.