The Power of Brand: OSI?


I attended a talk the other day at OSCON that has stuck with me; it was a discussion of naming and branding around open source called “who gets to decide what open source means?” As a corallary to this discussion, the OSI was selling (giving away with donation) tee shirts complete with a nice logo and naturally, there was a lot of discussion of their crackdown on abusers of the open source nomenclature.

On one hand I agree with the basic premise here, that if you call your stuff open source and then never actually open the source bad karma is in your future. But on the other hand, there is something a bit quesiness-inducing about all of this.

First off, there is at least a subtle irony in seeing a group of copyright libertarians using trademark and copyright to protect their brand. Not that there isn’t value in it, but it seems a bit like a gangster rapper, after a career of singing “$%## the police”, starting to make angry calls to the local precinct demanding increased neighborhood patrols once he has a nice house.

The other thing that is weighing on me is this idea. If the OSI is successful in developing this brand, it will be really valuable. Valuable things attract attempts to influence (think Congress). Couple this with a vote-based subjective decision process for OSI vetting against the criteria; and you have a system that seems idealistic and good now; but will most likely be subverted later. These self-appointed holders of the brand will have to be very careful to incorporate mechanisms and incentives for protecting the brand that are better and more powerful than the very strong incentives to subvert it.


  1. John Eckman - July 30, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

    Not sure why it should induce any queasiness. The whole premise of open source is dependent on preserving the right of individuals to release their code under the license they see fit and with the permissions they think appropriate.

    All the OSI approved licenses are, after all, licenses – they rely on the idea that code is intellectual property which people need a license to use (if they did not create it themselves).

    Similarly, creative commons licenses rely on the notion that the creator of a piece of content has the right to determine how and by whom it can be used.

    Wanting to reform intellectual property and copyright *as they are currently held in US law* is not the same thing as wanting to eliminate the notion of intellectual property as a whole.

    For some, the reliance on the notion of intellectual property at the heart of open licensing is an unfortunate necessity – using copyright against itself – but some folks are quite happy with the core concept of copyright and just want to use that right in a different way.

    None of this conflicts, in my view, with the notion of transparency, and that open source has come to mean a certain set of expectations which your software ought to meet if you’re going to call it open source.

    I’m not worried about the OSI being “gamed” because of their transparency – but I’m sure many people will be watching quite closely – especially now that Microsoft’s “open” licenses will be submitted to the OSI.

  2. Jim S - July 30, 2007 @ 3:30 pm

    John, I agree with your comments. I was attempting (poorly) to express an inchoate uneasiness with the concentration of power that goes with the accumulation of brand equity in a situation like this. Successful branding will encourage corrupting influences that only continued transparency will protect against.

    I have a question though. I agree with your first paragraph completely, but why do so many people think that the same should not be true for artists or the companies that distribute media? Questions of over-intrusive DRM controls aside, should an artist be able to use copyright to express their intent for the distribution of their work?

    To me there is an irony in that people in open source often seem to have very different views on how / whether a developer should be able to use copyright to express intent vs. an artist.

    The intent is different (“you should redistribute my source” vs. “you should not be able to use my image in an advertisement”) but the mechanism is the same.

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