2021 OSI Board candidate question answers

What should OSI do about the tens of millions of people who regularly collaborate to build software online (often calling that activity, colloquially, open source) but have literally no idea what OSI is or what it does?

This is still pertinent, as the growth of open source projects increased during the pandemic. OSI has started to think harder about this, in part through its first online conference this year, the State of the Source. But with open source continuing to sprawl, every board member should have a coherent theory of what OSI should do about this.

One of the biggest things that I see in open source is that there’s this tendency to conflate various types of openness together, in particular license definitions and the collaboration process. I don’t see this as an inherently bad thing – typically this is talked about as the spirit or ethos of open source. That said, I believe that the majority of people collaborating on software are not thinking about licensing much if at all, but rather the spirit of openness via the process and sharing of information. I think the OSI can help bridge between the intimidating legal language of licenses and maintainers who are unsure of how to navigate choosing or aren’t even aware that they would benefit from making a conscious decision. I see this as something that starts with plain language explanations of what a license means for different consuming and producing groups of the software (i.e. not just saying “user”); contextualizing available endorsed options within project ecosystems, such as why a WordPress-associated project may still be best actively choosing GPLv2 instead of another compatible license; and how that does or doesn’t impact methods of financial sustainability. Another potential early area of impact that is easy to understand would be to inform and possibly assist with process items surrounding license changes, such as soliciting contributor sign-off.

If an Ethical Software Initiative sprung up tomorrow, what should OSI’s relationship to it be?

Welp, it did spring up, in January 2021. OSI, as best as I can tell, hasn’t publicly acknowledged the group’s existence. That seems to me to be…less than ideal. Unpleasant personal politics between the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and OSI made it hard for those organizations to work together for years, damaging both of their causes. OSI should learn from this. If nothing else, a healthy arms-length relationship between OSI and ethical source organization(s) would tend to foster constructive disagreement—something sorely needed. How will new (or returning) board members handle this in the next term?

Like many in the free and open source spaces, I see these things as fundamentally incompatible. Acknowledging another organization is also a touchy subject – does acknowledgment imply endorsement, or is it perhaps starting a volley that there aren’t enough resources to sustain? To be quite frank, I don’t know how you define a relationship between things that do not and cannot align. I certainly hold personal feelings around ethical use and how things align with my values as a human, but having been a part of an OSS project that is userland-facing publishing software for so long, I also know perfectly well that the ability to give people an online voice under their control includes voices I personally may not like. In a dispute between two groups that is leading to human harm, who decides which group gets the online voice, and which doesn’t? What historical examples of suppression of publication are there that we could learn from? It’s very noble and valiant to pursue a definition of “ethical-source” to be applied to software usage, and I think there is value in trying to figure out how that works in a reality where laws and rules are often used against their original intentions.

Although an open process can be employed by many license styles, I do not see ethical use restrictions as a practical component of open source license definition. What of the ethics of the free labor involved, and the extraction of value by large corporations without contributions or other forms of support? There are many areas we can work on in terms of ethics in open source, I just don’t believe usage to be one of them.

When a license decision involves a topic on which the Open Source Definition is vague or otherwise unhelpful, what should the board do?

For example, the OSD does not specify that it must be easy, reasonable, or even possible to comply with innovative copyleft restrictions. What should happen in this situation? Do we give the benefit of the doubt to a license submitter? Does it depend on who the submitter is? Should we update an FAQ or otherwise adjust the OSD? Defer to the licensing committee or license review? Or do nothing at all? This is a fraught question, so I don’t envy the board. But it is nevertheless part of the board’s core role. (This is in some ways a more focused version of a question I asked last year: “If OSI has to choose between being an agent of change and a stabilizing force, which should it prefer?”)

I see my first answer regarding plain language, user-type-focused license explanations as being a significant component here. The practical result is likely that license definitions need to be practical and clear in their impact to all involved parties, meaning that it does need to be possible and presumably reasonable to comply with enumerated restrictions. It may not need to be a hard rule in order to submit a license, but I would find it impossible to evaluate one without understanding its real world impact on maintainers and consumers alike, no matter who needs to make the decision or what the potential changes might be to accommodate.

What role should the new staff play in license evaluation (or the OSD more generally)?

There are a variety of ways that staff could support the license-review process (like adding tooling or summarizing discussions). There are probably also quite a few reasons why staff should stay out of the process altogether, such as a desire to center community decision making. Given the plan to add staff and the renewed centrality of the OSD, what do the board candidates think the relationship between the two should be? Hands off? Deeply involved? Focused elsewhere?

At the risk of sounding like I’m being coy, I think this very much depends on the role of each staff member! I do not hold a strong opinion about this right now, which is a position I strongly believe in being clear about anytime it applies. That said, if the desire is to center community decision making in those areas, then perhaps staff members are able to participate as their individual selves as a part of the community, but the focus of their job is to support rather than to drive. This is an area where I feel that my desire to learn and support the organization will produce a better-informed decision at an appropriate time, rather than an immediate one that comes from a well-intentioned but under-informed set of opinions.