Dash Open 18: A chat with Joshua Simmons, Vice President, Open Source Initiative

Gil Yehuda: Hello Everyone and Welcome to the Dash Open Podcast. Dash Open is your source for interesting conversations about open source, and other technologies from the Open Source Program Office at Verizon Media. Home to many leading brands including Yahoo, AOL, Huffington Post, Tumblr, TechCrunch, and many more. My name is Gil and I'm on the open source team at Verizon media. Today on the show, I'm excited to chat with Joshua Simmons. Josh is a Senior Open Source Strategist at Salesforce, and the Vice President of the Open Source initiative (OSI). Welcome to the show, Josh. Joshua Simmons: Thanks. It's great to be here. Gil Yehuda: Where is here? Joshua Simmons: Right now we are in room A109 at the Oregon Convention Center, OSCON is happening a few hundred meters away. Gil Yehuda: A very interesting show. Day two. You're one of the more popular people here at OSCON, everyone is always around you, talking to you, so I'm really glad that we had a chance to get you here on the podcast. We wanted to really just tap into your thoughts on OSI and the open source ecosystem at large. So, I guess first of all, we’ll start off and let me just ask you, what is the OSI? Joshua Simmons: OSI is a nonprofit that stewards the open source definition and maintains the OSI approved license list. OSI was founded in 1998, the same year that the term open source was coined and the definition was written, and the reason that OSI exists is to, shall we say, tame the chaos of licensing. So for instance, many organizations, and whether they're for-profits, nonprofits or government agencies, defer to the OSI in terms of licensing. So when say I am at company X, company X is trying to write a policy to allow their staff members to use open source software, contribute to it, my documentation will often refer to OSI's approved license list, as a way to externalize the costs of navigating the often wild world of licenses. Gil Yehuda: Got it. So open source and even before open source and its origin, the free software movement really started with revolutionary licenses, and I guess, 21 years ago now? Joshua Simmons: Yeah. Gil Yehuda: 21 years ago the open source movement started, with a category of licenses that are a little different than the free software licenses but in many ways they're similar. Joshua Simmons: Yep. Gil Yehuda: And in many ways they are different. So OSI, is the steward of those licenses. There's something called the open source definition, you mentioned, so you're the steward of that definition. Joshua Simmons: That's right. Gil Yehuda: And that defines what an open source license is. Joshua Simmons: Exactly. So the open source definition is a list of 10 things, that when a new license is drafted and someone submits it to the review process for consideration and discussion among the community, is this actually open source, that discussion centers around whether or not the new license conforms to the 10 points in that definition. Gil Yehuda: Got it. Joshua Simmons: So an example might be a field of use restriction. No open source license may discriminate against the field of use. So if I'm writing a license, I can't say anybody can use this except for cloud providers. Joshua Simmons: I can't write a license like that and have it be legitimately considered open source. Gil Yehuda: Got it. So the field of restriction, that seems to be the one that comes up quite a bit because a lot of the open source, a lot of the proposed licenses that are created are proposed with, I don't know, some sort of, in some cases may be ethical consideration. Gil Yehuda: Or in some cases competitive sort of consideration, where I want, anyone can use this license if they adhere to my political philosophy. So those would be violations of the discriminatory either field of use. Joshua Simmons: Yeah. Which is number five. So five is no discrimination against persons or groups, and six is no discrimination against fields of endeavor. And so for instance, if your license discriminated in any of those example ways, it would not pass the test. It would not be considered open source. Gil Yehuda: Right. Joshua Simmons: I think there are two important things to understand about the open source definition. The first is that any license that meets the Free Software Foundation's definition of a free software license, passes the test with the four freedoms, also passes the open source definition test. So, open source definition was very much something that came out of the free software movement. And as you noted, open source licenses often differ a bit from free software licenses, and the way that I would put it is that, free software licenses are a subset of open source licenses, because open source licenses can be copyleft, they can breach free software licenses or they can be permissive licenses as some people describe them. Gil Yehuda: Those licenses that violate clause five or clause six, right? So they discriminate against people. So it's like all people who share my political ideology can use the software and all people who don't can't or more notably, all people who are in the world of academia can use this license and all people who work for companies can't? Or field of use, you can use this for research purposes, but not for commercial purposes. Right? Joshua Simmons: Right. Gil Yehuda: That's right. So those kinds of licenses, I mean you're not a lawyer, I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to ask you the legal question as to whether they're legally legitimate. Gil Yehuda: Because I guess in theory some of them may be or may not be, but there are legitimate licenses, but they're not legitimate open source licenses. So the definition, if I understand what OSI does, is it doesn't say whether this is a good or bad license, whether it's a right or wrong license or whether it's a pretty or ugly license. Joshua Simmons: Right. Gil Yehuda: So it's not about, it's really says, at least says, this license doesn't comply with these 10 things and it's usually these one or two things cause those are the most contentious ones Gil Yehuda: Doesn't mean you can't use it, but it does mean that you really can't call it open, or open source because, the word open source means something, and yours isn't, it's a different kind of license. Right? Joshua Simmons: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think this is, this has been, I confess a challenge, because out of my own story here, I came up as a freelance web developer, and I had the great joy of building a career using Drupal. Something that is a GPL license, if I remember correctly, and Drupal is open source software. But at the time I knew that the software was free for me to use and modify and build on and then sell, but it never really dawned on me that that was something novel, something special was going on there. Joshua Simmons: And I think there are a lot of people like me who get into web development or software development, and because open source is so pervasive, we don't realize that there's something special or novel going on and that it’s open source. Joshua Simmons: And so it didn't dawn on me until years later that, oh my gosh, this is like a, there's this approach to intellectual property that has really underwritten my career and my ability to not reinvent the wheel and just add value on top of existing things. And so I think a lot of people get into this work and they hear open source and they get a sense of like, oh there's these types of software that's proprietary and there's open source and there are a lot of people who don't know what open source really is. It's like, oh I know when I see it or it's a feeling or it's the spirit of open source. And while I acknowledge that open source may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Joshua Simmons: And that may be valid, open source is a term of art. And when I say term of art, I mean it is something specific that has a meaning that lawyers rely on and need to. And so it's really critical that while we may have colloquial understandings of what open source is, that we also recognize that there's a strict definition of open source. And the fact that we have a strict definition of open source is what allows us to collaborate without friction. Because if we didn't have an open source definition, then we could have like whole categories of licenses that were incompatible with each other, or they might contain surprises. But the fact that something has become an OSI approved license means that you can trust. It's going to fit this mold, and it's going to behave in predictable ways. Gil Yehuda: And I guess in many ways it's sort of analogous to go into the supermarket and seeing the word organic on a product, or saying the phrase gluten-free, and having a certain assurance as to well what does actually, what does that mean? Can I just use that word? Gil Yehuda: Like just because it says, good for you doesn't mean that it's good for you. Joshua Simmons: I think that's a good analogy. Gil Yehuda: Sure. Joshua Simmons: The way people say, this is open source or not, which means that, there are times, when you might be out and about shopping for some software you want to use or a piece of hardware, and it may say that it's open source and it's not actually using an OSI approved license, which I would say means that it is not actually open source. Gil Yehuda: So I'll share with you that I've seen that plenty of times. Gil Yehuda: In my work, I see plenty of things that say they're open source in some part of the blog post or in some part of, the communication about it and then when you look really carefully you find that well much of it is, but then there are some parts that actually aren't. In the sense that they aren't open source and sort of the understanding of what it is. Gil Yehuda: And then technically speaking, had those licenses or had those terms been brought to OSI. I would predict from my understanding that OSI would say, yeah no. This clearly violates the term. So buyer be aware, when you look at, I guess when you're shopping around for open source options or solutions for things that you need, merely saying the words open source might not be enough. Looking carefully at the applicable license and new sort of other terms that might decorate that is relevant. Joshua Simmons: So it's critical to look at the license, and then look at the OSI approved license list. Which you can find at, and if you see that the license is there, well okay, you've got some authentic open source there. Joshua Simmons: And if you don't, well maybe, I would ask that you would come and tell us. Joshua Simmons: Even though we don't have the power to police these things, we will often reach out on behalf of the community to a project organizer, to a company, and we'll reach out to them in private, we're going to call in before we call out. Gil Yehuda: Right. Joshua Simmons: And we say, hey, this means something very specific to people and, it's not accurate the way that you're using it. Could you please X, Y, and Z, and we try to help them remedy that, because often it's a mistake that's made, without any malintent. Joshua Simmons: And so we're here to help and there are a number of cases where, the community comes to us, reports an issue, we go talk to them, and that typically gets resolved because people respect that there's a community here with a shared understanding and they recognize that there's value in having that shared understanding and not muddying the waters. Gil Yehuda: So let me ask, let's talk about evolution and relevance because the free software movement recognized, it's need to on the one hand stick to their principled approach of supporting user freedom. I mean at the end of the day that's a very strong motivating value for the free software foundation and at the other, to correspond with that, they recognize that the way software is distributed and delivered has changed such that the thoughts they had in the late eighties. Gil Yehuda: There was just a shift in the way that we deal with software such than earlier where they said, you should be able to write to some address in downtown Boston to receive a copy of the license. Joshua Simmons: They've created evolved licenses that still adhere to the principles and yet evolve to the modern situations. The state that we're in and open source today, seems to be calling for that kind of conversation, where compute is in the cloud and when foundational services that are being made available to consumers, are made available through intermediaries, one has to ask, is there a way for OSI to accommodate the evolution of needs and still remain true to its principles? Joshua Simmons: And play that kind of like just how, and let me see if I can even further articulate this question because it's so complicated. In as much as the free software foundation played with versions of GPL, LGPL and AGPL, and yet there are still gaps, right? Gil Yehuda: And I still, even putting my free software tin foil cap on, I would say, eh, like it's good, but it's better than it was, but it's not good enough. I think that in the world of the permissive licenses or the spectrum of OSI licenses, which include permissive and restrictive licenses or permissive creditory licenses, or copyleft licenses, there's clearly this need in the industry to say, well, can't there be a license that is both open but also not open? And given this, is there space for a new term? and if there is, is that term governed by another nonprofit entity? Or is there space for a new term that's governed by the same nonprofit entity that says here are the ones that are open and here are the ones that are, whatever that word is that means almost open but not really. Joshua Simmons: Right. I think there's always space for revolution, I think you're right, times have changed. And there were a lot of things about the way technology works today that we were not considered as people drafted as some of the more popular licenses back in the day. And so there are a few ways to go about this. Because I recognize we're in a different world now and that calls for probably new licenses. I'm not saying that we need new licenses, but we might. Gil Yehuda: Or maybe a new license. Well clearly there's a desire on the part of some voices in the industry for such a thing. Gil Yehuda: So then the expression is there. Gil Yehuda: And now the question is what's the response? Right? Cause the response, the real response is like, no, this doesn't fit. It's like you can use those licenses but you can't call them open. But then there's the, hmm, let me observe, there's all this need to create something. I wonder how that gets managed Gil Yehuda: You know, much like the open source movement of evolves for free software movement, how does this evolve, and is this the kind of evolution that we want to see happen or is the kind of evolution where we say, no! This is actually problematic, because this denies a certain reality that, maybe the need for these licenses is really a desperate attempt to claim stake in what might be a business practice that's eroding? Joshua Simmons: Oh, I'm so glad, you've said it before I had to. Gil Yehuda: Well no, I mean, so I'm exploring the possibilities. Like I don't want to necessarily come to a conclusion. But I want to explore the possibilities. On the one hand, industry's evolving and the other hand. Gil Yehuda: You have this need, they have this, expression of the need for licenses and now the question for people to evaluate, people in the industry and the industry leaders to evaluate is, is this something that we now need to embrace, accommodate and figure out how to nestle and carry. Or is this something that we need to recognize, or sort of an attempt to claim something, where the evolution is saying, eh, it's not going to work moving past this. Figure out another way. Joshua Simmons: I think that the first point I want to make, because I think you've set this up really well and we're living in a particularly interesting time for licensing and, first I think that we probably, the expression for a desire for new licenses or new approaches to these things, is valid. I first want to say that. Joshua Simmons: Now what are the motivations? What are we trying to accomplish with these new licenses? I will, I guess I should back up, and say the open source initiative will, it not only maintains the open source definition but that it applies it through the license review process, which then gets the license either added to the approved license lists or not. And so as people feel novel needs, like needs for a newer novel license, we welcome that and we encourage them to, as they feel this need to start on the license discuss list, where we can just talk about the ideas and, possibly save them some time. Joshua Simmons: And then when they draft a license submitted to the license review list and we'll review it and it either gets added or not or we ask them to revise it in a way and then it gets added. There's a process in place for considering new licenses and, whether or not they're open source. And so I encourage people to engage with that process. I really encourage people to partake in that. Now with that said, if there's a need for something that doesn't fit the open source definition, a license that doesn't fit the open source definition, maybe you were talking about source available licenses, or something else, that is beyond LSI's remit. Now I'm not going to say that it's invalid. It's your intellectual property, license it however you want. Gil Yehuda: I mean there's the whole creative commons organization which deals with licenses that are really more focused on content than source code. Gil Yehuda: And that exists without any sense of competitiveness against OSI. Right? Joshua Simmons: Exactly. There's this, there's a separate field with a separate need that is similar in spirit. And making things sort of open licensed or permissively licensed so that we can share them more easily and I'll build on them, but yeah, that exists. Without, as you said, any sense of competition. Joshua Simmons: And so I certainly welcome, if we find that there's a whole new class of things that the opensource definition doesn't really cover, well, let's have that conversation as a community. And what I would encourage and what I would love to see happen is if that is the case, that we follow a similar pattern here. With creative commons, there's an organization, there's a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. That maintains the licenses and evolves them over time, and sort of facilitates all of this, just like OSI has it's licensed list and evolves over time. And the reason, the pattern that I'm describing here is like having an organization that can convene people around this discussion, and be an arbiter and a facilitator of that discussion. So we have this neutral territory that we can discuss and that isn't necessarily beholden to my self-interest or your self-interest. Because we were all coming at this with different intentions and different motivations though we have more common ground than we don't. We're definitely coming from different places. Gil Yehuda: Is it that actual pattern, that pattern that you just described that has made open source great. Joshua Simmons: Absolutely. Gil Yehuda: Is the ability to convene people who come from different perspectives to share quite a lot in common, but not everything. And to say, okay, let's figure out how to make something valuable. And we've certainly done that in the open source community. You know Josh, let me end with one question if I may, thinking about the folks who are listening to this podcast, and as individual listeners who want to hear what you have to say, and also many of whom work for organizations. I'm wondering what thought would you want them to have when they think about OSI that they can either bring into their lives as open source participants, or to their organizations as members in the field, that they can think about. What's your message to them? Joshua Simmons: I want people to know that the open source initiative is of the community, by the community, for the community. We have an elected board, we are a 501(c)(3) charity. We conduct our conversations in the open. Our board minutes are largely also in the open. We are you. And so as people discover OSI and maybe they didn't know it exists and maybe they get their hackles up like, Oh, there's somebody who is like the gatekeeper of open source, no! We're not the gatekeeper. We are you. So come to the table and let's talk about it. If you have concerns that are ideas, it's just like an open source project, show up and talk to us and we'll figure it out together. Joshua Simmons: The other thing that I really want people to keep in mind is that we, like many of the other grassroots foundations, are a charity, with a scrappy budget and so we're as grassroots as it gets and we can't do it without your help. And we can use all the help We can get. Especially in times like this when the light is shining bright on us and people expect a lot of us, but don't necessarily realize that we're a tiny organization that's mostly volunteer driven. Joshua Simmons: So come to the table, let's talk, help us out if you can. Gil Yehuda: Josh, thank you very much for your time. So, to the listeners, if open source is important to you, it probably is if you're listening to this podcast, if it's important to your organization, you can find out more about OSI and the role they play in the open source world. I think you have a very memorable URL, what's the URL for them to find out more? Joshua Simmons: Gil Yehuda: That makes it really easy. So go to to learn more. Josh, again, thank you for your time. Joshua Simmons: Thanks for having me. Gil Yehuda: If you enjoyed this episode of Dash Open, and if you want to learn more about the open source program at Verizon Media or any of the other things that we work on, visit our website at and you can find us on Twitter at @YDN and thank you for listening to the show.

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