OSI Board Addition May Bring Needed Change

Can Simon Phipps help the Open Source Initiative realize its true potential?

When Simon Phipps says people have been critical of the Open Source Initiative, I'm pretty sure I'm one of the critics to which he's referring.

The OSI has been one of those organizations that seemed to fall short of its true potential, which is always a source of frustration; you want them to succeed, and don't understand when things go awry. It's particularly difficult to stand by and watch it happen to people whom you genuinely respect, like Michael Tiemann, Danese Cooper, and Phipps himself, who has this week has been elected to the Board of Directors, effective April 1. They, and other members of the OSI board, are individually very smart and more than capable of spearheading the open source governance body.

The OSI, if you recall, is primarily responsible for enforcing the Open Source Definition, the document that literally defines what is open source software. The practical extension of this enforcement is, in a nutshell, the OSI decides what constitutes an open source license.

Unfortunately, in the selfsame spirit of openness that the OSI is trying to promote, the group has, in the past, approved a lot of open source licenses. Currently there are 66 licenses officially sanctioned by the OSI, which many people, myself included, believe dilutes the significance of open source.

To be sure, the OSI isn't akin to a group of monks sitting on their mountaintop handing out decrees to the unwashed masses. They've heard the criticisms, and they have been reworking the license review process so any new license submittals will have to work harder to justify why they are should be unique, when one of the other licenses would do just as well.

From the outside, this approach appears to be working. If you look at the page for incoming license-approval requests, you will find it rather empty. At least, as of today.

And now, with Phipps officially joining the OSI Board, there is opportunity for further change. Phipps has long been a Board Observer with the organization and has been a vocal advocate for them--so in that respect, not much has changed. His election to the Board comes at a good time, as Phipps recently announced he was leaving Sun, following the acquisition by Oracle. Having an official vote may help Phipps steer some of his own initiatives within the OSI, including shifting the group from a governance-body model to more of a user-oriented community.

This approach, I hope, takes off because--no surprise--I like user communities. But a community needs something to do with themselves, and I wonder how such an OSI would channel a community's energies?

According to Phipps, "I’d like to see activities promoting software freedom around the world both encouraged and represented by OSI--education, policy development and perhaps organisational support for open source projects."

I can dig these efforts, especially the education aspect, because every day I am still (still!) running across people that think open source is a bad, scary thing. Teaching people what open source is (and isn't) is paramount in the face of massive marketing and litigious moves from proprietary companies.

I'm keeping an eye on this as time progresses. Because as much as I have whacked the OSI, I will be one of the first in line if they do create a membership structure. More than any other organization in the open source community, I believe the OSI has the most potential for good.

It's time to meet and exceed that potential.

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