Interpreting the Purpose of the Open Usage Commons Foundation

Yesterday, the Open Usage Commons (OUC) foundation announced itself. It is a non-profit which wants to ensure free and fair trademark use of the open source projects under its guidance. My Twitter feed was quick to denounce the OUC as a vanity foundation. It certainly is not. A vanity foundation serves to aggrandize its creators, and a name like “The Great Company Open Source Foundation” would then be apt. This is not the case here. Rather the OUC makes specific statements about trademark enforcement, so it has a purpose that is not vanity. Just what is that purpose, and why did existing foundations not fit the bill?

Lets take the second question first: Why did Google, as the owner-steward of the three open source projects given to the foundation (Istio, Angular, Gerrit) not transfer them to the Apache Software Foundation? I can only speculate, but if trademark enforcement was their goal, Google obviously felt existing foundations were too weak for this. According to the current FAQ, the OUC’s mission is to

“[…] help projects assert and manage their project identity […] through programs like conformance testing and trademark management.”

Open Usage Commons FAQ, 2020-07-09

There it is, the foundations’s purpose, which in its own words makes it “something wildely new in open source.” I admit I haven’t seen “conformance testing” in any other open source foundation’s bylaws, and so it depends on how serious the OUC is about this. In the extreme case, it will mean something like a full certification program with criteria design, consultants/trainers, and assessors to certify conformance that allows you to use the trademark to stay in business.

At this stage, it is too early to predict what is coming. However, here are the two extreme interpretations, to map out the possible future.

The benign interpretation is that Google wanted to do right by the open source projects and their communities. In particular Istio contributors and users were getting antsy about being at Google’s mercy re: trademark use. To give them peace of mind and to grow the ecosystem, Google transfered the trademark to a neutral authority, the OUC, which creates clear and fair rules on when and how to use the trademark. Everything is peachy.

The devil’s advocate interpretation is that the OUC’s conformance testing is a tool for keeping competitors away from the open source projects. The heat is on Istio, a commercially relevant service mesh. Google wants Istio to be even more popular, so that it can benefit from the project the open source way: Cost savings, innovation, recruiting, standardization, etc. At the same time, Google and its OUC partners may not want AWS or Microsoft to use it.

Previous attempts by companies to keep competitors from using their open source projects utilized license shenanigans and created a shitstorm that is still in everyone’s ear. Maybe using the threat of complex trademark conformance testing and auditing does the same job? What if a conformance requirement is at odds with how a cloud provider built its architecture? What if an audit can lead to unwanted disclosures? This way, those who define the conformance criteria can make life difficult for those who they want it to be difficult for. Knowing this, the competitor will stay away because uncertainty is costly.

That’s it: The two extremes of the possible future behavior of the OUC. The future is bright, one way or the other. Be safe and healthy!

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