IBM has a problem with Google’s Open Usage Commons

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Enlarge / Nobody from IBM is proposing any lawsuits over Google’s addition of Istio to its new Open Usage Commons foundation. But they’re not happy about it.

This Wednesday, Google announced a new open source initiative—the Open Usage Commons, a sort of stewardship project for open source trademarks. The move drew immediate criticism from IBM, which claims an interest in Istio, one of the three projects Google seeded the OUC with at launch.

What is the Open Usage Commons?

Before we can really get into IBM’s beef, we need to spend some time investigating what the Open Usage Commons is trying to do in the first place. From its own FAQ:

The Open Usage Commons gives open source projects a neutral, independent home for their project trademarks, and provides assistance with conformance testing, establishing mark usage guidelines, and handling issues around trademark usage that projects encounter.

The Open Usage Commons does not provide services that are outside the realm of usage, such as technical mentorship, community management, project events, or project marketing.

In some ways, this sounds like a standard item from the open source playbook: establish a conservancy to manage things neutrally and keep them free for all. But so far, trademarks have largely been the one thing that open source projects have kept to themselves, and for good reason—tarnishing a project’s brand damages the project itself in difficult or impossible to repair ways.

IBM-owned Red Hat itself is one of the largest open source companies in the world, and its Red Hat Enterprise Linux makes for an interesting case study. All of the source code of RHEL is open source and may be freely downloaded, copied, and reused. If you want to build the entire operating system from its own source code and distribute it as your own, you may—but the one thing you can’t do is call it “Red Hat Linux.”

Debian Linux’s decade-long spat with Mozilla over the Firefox logo is another interesting example of the conflict between open code and proprietary trademarks. The short version is, Mozilla retained full copyright on the Firefox logo—and this created a problem for Debian, whose policies don’t permit redistribution of non-free intellectual property. So Debian pulled the logo but left the browser intact—causing Mozilla to refuse the project permission to use the Firefox name on the resulting build. Debian, meanwhile, simply renamed its build “Iceweasel” instead.

It’s easy to understand why an open source project would want to protect its trademarks, though. If you don’t protect your trademark, there’s nothing stopping—for example—Oracle from deciding to create an entirely different product called “Firefox,” leading to severe confusion at best.

So far, it’s difficult to see what Google is trying to accomplish here—branding is literally the only thing an open source project has left to protect, and doing so is critically important. So why give that up? The answer is a few paragraphs farther down:

[C]ompanies that want to offer managed versions of these projects… can invest in offering “Project as a Service” because it’s a guarantee that they can use that mark; it won’t be suddenly taken away on a whim after they’ve built up an offering around it.

What isn’t clear is how Google’s Open Usage Commons actually provides that guarantee to “Project as a Service” companies—because it doesn’t actually seem to set any hard policies. Each of the examples given in its FAQ about usage of managed trademarks boils down to “you have to use the trademark in accordance with that project’s trademark usage guidelines”—and that the projects themselves will continue to set those guidelines.

IBM, Istio, and the OUC

Istio is a platform-independent service mesh providing traffic management, policy enforcement, and telemetry collection. It was developed as an open source project by teams from Google, IBM, and Lyft on GitHub and is currently one of the fastest growing projects to be found there.

Google owns the trademark to Istio, but it launched publicly as a merger of Google’s internal project by that name and IBM’s own open source Amalgam8 project. At the time, IBM described the merger as making sense due to Google’s founding developer position with Kubernetes—Istio itself enables and facilitates communication at scale between the containers swimming in the Kubernetes ocean, so to speak.

But according to IBM fellow Jason McGee, the original partnership included an understanding that Istio, once sufficiently mature, would be handed over to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. The CNCF is a vendor-neutral, non-profit child organization of the Linux Foundation; handing an open source project over to the CNCF ensures that no single company can use undue leverage to influence another company that uses and becomes dependent on that project.

IBM sees the Open Usage Commons as tied directly to Google, rather than being truly vendor-independent and vendor-neutral like the CNCF. It’s difficult or impossible to dissect the Linux Foundation or CNCF and come up with anything that looks like ownership by a single company.

It’s also difficult to see what the future for the Open Usage Commons will truly look like—it’s been founded with a six-person board of directors, only two of whom work for Google. But all of the projects initially donated to the Commons come from Google itself—making it apparent that there was no wide industry buy-in accumulated prior to the Commons’ launch.

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