Google has launched a new organization to manage trademarks for open source projects. The Open Usage Commons will help projects “assert and manage their project identity through programs specific to trademark management and conformance testing,” according to a blog post by Chris DiBona, director of open source for Google and Alphabet.
The company says that the organization provides a “neutral, independent ownership” for the trademarks and allows project maintainers to “define their identity, provide assurances to downstream users of the quality of their offering, and give others in the community certainty about the free and fair use of the brand.”
DiBona explained in an interview that, with more than 3,000 active open source projects, Google has run the gamut of issues when it comes to intellectual property and open source, and so the Open Usage Commons was introduced as a way to address that.
“The idea was to create a new independent home for open source project trademarks, and to provide sort of guidance on the use of trademarks in open source, because if you look at most open source licenses, they do not treat, mention, disclaim, or give permission around the use of trademarks, and so we wanted to fix that,” said DiBona. “We want to put together language around trademarks consistent with the Open Source Definition that can be adopted by projects wholesale.”
The core of the Open Usage Commons is found when DiBona writes that “How project trademarks are used is different from how their code is used, as trademarks are a method of quality assurance. This includes the assurance that the code in question has an open source license. When trademarks are properly managed, project maintainers can define their identity, provide assurances to downstream users of the quality of their offering, and give others in the community certainty about the free and fair use of the brand.”
Member projects will receive support around trademark protection and management, usage guidelines, and conformance testing, and the organization will also task itself with education around trademarks, as “understanding and managing trademarks is critical for the long-term sustainability of projects, particularly with the increasing number of enterprise products based on open source,” DiBona writes.
DiBona also said that the project was being launched as “truly third-party” and that “Google does not have majority control and will never have majority control.” Currently, the Open Usage Commons launch is in collaboration with a number of academic leaders on its board and with SADA Systems, but Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC, points out the absence of other big names on the roster – especially when it comes to funding.
“This independent group, by the way, is funded by Google,” said Gillen. “Where are the other big cloud vendors here? Why don’t we see Alibaba or Amazon Web Services or Microsoft being named as partners in this initiative? I would like to think that that’s forthcoming, but until it does, how independent is that entity going to really be if it’s sustained through a single major vendor?”
The Future of Istio
It’s on the mention of this final project, Istio, that the announcement of the Open Usage Commons enters the realm of an ongoing dispute in the cloud native community over whether or not the project should be donated by Google to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), as Google did with its Kubernetes project. In April, Protocol reported Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian as saying that the company “will eventually donate its open-source project Istio to a foundation at some point in the near future.”
DiBona said that this was, indeed, that foundation mentioned, but that it was only focused on trademark, and not governance or any of the other aspects you would associate with the CNCF.
“We are not looking to be a marketing organization, a governance organization. My end goal is to be a librarian for these trademarks. We’re not taking on governance issues,” said DiBona, adding that things like the CNCF and the Linux Foundation already exist and that they’re not trying to recreate them. “They already exist and they’re fine.”
What’s at stake here, as pointed out in an earlier Protocol article on whether or not Google would donate Istio to a foundation, is whether or not other companies feel comfortable either adopting or contributing to the project moving forward, without assurances around open governance. As IDC analyst Al Gillen remarks, though, this does nothing to assert control over governance — a point also touched upon by DiBona in his blog post, when he writes that “we hope this new model encourages anyone who has stood on the sidelines until now to participate in these projects.” For Gillen, he remains optimistic that Istio’s donation to an independent foundation remains as a future possibility, but doesn’t see this as precluding that, pointing to Google’s history with Kubernetes.
“You can drive a project to relative maturity in a number of different ways and one of them is for a single or a small number of commercial entities to essentially be the governance around a project and drive that project forward and get it to a certain level of maturity before they turn it over to a foundation. If you think about Kubernetes for instance, that’s what Google did, right?” said Gillen. “Google drove Kubernetes to a certain point and then, slowly, over a couple years turned over the different aspects of the governance associated with Kubernetes over the CNCF. But I mean, this announcement is not about governance at all. It’s about the copyrighting trademarking of these technologies.”
Meanwhile, rumors had been floating around about Istio’s donation to an independent foundation, and we asked CNCF CTO Chris Aniszczyk what he thought of Istio going to a foundation that wasn’t the CNCF, and he said that “Our community members are perplexed that Google has chosen to not contribute the Istio project to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), but we are happy to help guide them to resubmit their old project proposal from 2017 at any time. In the end, our community remains focused on building and supporting our service mesh projects like Envoy, linkerd and interoperability efforts like the Service Mesh Interface (SMI). The CNCF will continue to be the center of gravity of cloud native and service mesh collaboration and innovation.”
Liz Rice, chair of the CNCF’s Technical Oversight Committee (TOC), further focused on the project’s potential governance, in a foundation.
“The beauty of open governance, as required by CNCF and other software foundations like ASF and Mozilla, is that control is shared across representatives from multiple vendors and even end users. That way, the project roadmap isn’t inherently tangled up in any one company’s product strategy. End-user companies don’t want the life of the projects they depend on to be subject to the whims of a single company who could choose to stop investing at any time,” wrote Rice in an email. “In my experience talking with end users, foundations like the CNCF give them confidence that core, strategic software components are here to stay, and will be well-governed and maintained long into the future. Vendors care about trademarks, but they are of no real consequence to the end users running software internally. […] Our doors remain open should Istio want to reconsider.”
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