Software Freedom Conservancy

Organizational Proliferation Is Not the Problem You Think It Is

by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 9, 2020

I've been concerned this week about aggressive negative reaction (by some) to the formation of an additional organization to serve the Free and Open Source (FOSS) community. Thus it seems like a good moment to remind everyone why we all benefit when we welcome newcomer organizations in FOSS.

I've been involved in helping found many different organizations — in roles as varied as co-founder, founding Board member, consultant, spin-off partner, and “just a friend giving advice”. Most of these organizations fill a variety of roles; they support, house, fiscally sponsor, or handle legal issues and/or trademark, copyright, or patent matters for FOSS projects. I and my colleagues at Conservancy speak regularly about why we believe a 501(c)(3) charitable structure in the USA has huge advantages, and you can find plenty of blog posts on our site about that. But you can also find us talking about how 501(c)(6) structures, and other structures outside the USA entirely, are often the right choices — depending on what a FOSS project seeks from its organization. Conservancy also makes our policies, agreements, and processes fully public so that organizations can reuse our work, and many have.

Meanwhile, FOSS organizations must avoid the classic “not invented here” anti-pattern. Of course I believe that Conservancy has great ideas for how to help FOSS, and our work — such as fiscal sponsorship, GPL enforcement work, and the Outreachy internship program — are the highest priorities in FOSS. I also believe the projects we take under our auspices are the most important projects in FOSS today.

But not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, loves the aphorism “let a thousand flowers bloom”. For example, when we learned of the launch of Open Collective, we at Conservancy were understandably concerned that since they were primarily a 501(c)(6) and didn't follow the kinds of fiscal sponsorship models and rules that we preferred, that somehow it was a “threat” to Conservancy. But that reaction is one of fear, selfishness, and insecurity. Once we analyzed what the Open Collective folks were up to, we realized that they were an excellent option for a lot of the projects that were simply not a good fit for Conservancy and our model. Conservancy is deeply steeped in a long-term focus on software freedom for the general public, and some projects — particularly those that are primarily in service to companies rather than individual users (or who don't want the oversight a charity requires) — just don't belong with us. We regularly refer projects to Open Collective.

For many larger projects, Linux Foundation — as a 501(c)(6) controlled completely by large technology companies — is also a great option. We've often referred Conservancy applicants there, too. We do that even while we criticize Linux Foundation for choosing proprietary software for many tasks, including proprietary software they write from scratch for their outward-facing project services. We know that large for-profit companies and their employees generally don't mind using proprietary software (even to develop FOSS), so we don't hesitate to refer those kinds of projects (with our activist caveats) to Linux Foundation.

Of course, I'm thinking about all this today because Conservancy has been asked what we think about the Open Usage Commons. The fact is they're just getting started and both the legal details of how they're handling trademarks, and their governance documents, haven't been released yet. We should all give them an opportunity to slowly publish more and review it when it comes along. We should judge them fairly as an alternative for fulfilling FOSS project needs that no else addresses (or, more commonly are being addressed very differently by existing organizations). I'm going to hypothesize that, like Linux Foundation, Open Usage Commons will primarily be of interest to more for-profit-company focused projects, but that's my own speculation; none of us know yet.

No one is denying that Open Usage Commons is tied to Google as part of their founding — in the same way that Linux Foundation's founding (which was originally founded as the “Open Source Development Labs”) was closely tied to IBM at the time. As near as I can tell, IBM's influence over Linux Foundation is these days no more than any other of their Platinum Members. It's not uncommon for a trade association to jumpstart with a key corporate member and eventually grow to be governed by a wider group of companies. But while appropriately run trade associations do balance the needs of all for-profit companies in their industry, they are decidedly not neutral; they are chartered to favor business needs over the needs of the general public. I encourage skepticism when you hear an organization claim “neutrality”. Since a trade association is narrowed to serving businesses, it can be neutral among the interests of business, but their mandate remains putting business needs above community. The ultimate proof of neutrality pudding is in the eating. As with multi-copyright held GPL'd projects, we can trust the equal rights for all in those — regardless of the corporate form of the contributors — because the document of legal rights makes it so. The same principle applies to any area of FOSS endeavor: examine the agreements and written rules for contributors and users to test neutrality.

Finally, there are plenty of issues where software freedom activists should criticize Google. Just today, I was sent a Google Docs link for a non-FOSS volunteer thing I'm doing, and I groaned knowing that I'd have to install a bunch of proprietary Javascript just to be able to participate. Often, software freedom activists assume that bad actions by an entity means all actions are de-facto problematic. But we must judge each policy move on its own merits to avoid pointless partisanship.

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