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The Open Source Initiative (OSI) took a strong, unequivocal stance on its definition of open source this week, encouraging organizations to sign a public affirmation of its role in maintaining and stewarding the definition. The organization has been instrumental in combatting issues caused by license proliferation, as many open source licenses cannot be legally combined and this can be detrimental to the open source ecosystem.

The affirmation published this week explains the need for a standard definition of open source:

Without this single, standard definition of “open source,” software development as we know it would not be possible. There is no trust in a world where anyone can invent their own definition for open source, and without trust there is no community, no collaboration, and no innovation.

Recent controversy surrounding Redis Labs licensing some of its modules under the Apache 2.0 modified with a Commons Clause has highlighted the need for an authoritative definition of open source. Salil Deshpande, who helped create the Commons Clause (written by open-source lawyer Heather Meeker), wrote an article for TechCrunch two months ago about how he perceives large cloud infrastructure providers, such as AWS in this case, to be a threat to the viability of open source. He explained why he and collaborators commissioned the Commons Clause:

We wished to define a license that prevents cloud infrastructure providers from running certain software as a commercial service, while at the same time making that software effectively open source for everyone else, i.e. everyone not running that software as a commercial service.

With our first proposal, Commons Clause, we took the most straightforward approach: we constructed one clause, which can be added to any liberal open-source license, preventing the licensee from “Selling” the software  —  where “Selling” includes running it as a commercial service. (Selling other software made with Commons Clause software is allowed, of course.) Applying Commons Clause transitions a project from open source to source-available.

In referencing MongoDB’s Server Side Public License (SSPL), Deshpande questioned the authority and relevance of OSI:

OSI, which has somehow anointed itself as the body that will “decide” whether a license is open source, has a habit of myopically debating what’s open source and what’s not. With the submission of SSPL to OSI, MongoDB has put the ball in OSI’s court to either step up and help solve an industry problem, or put their heads back in the sand.

The Commons Clause, which has no chance of being approved by OSI, was a reaction to cloud-based services making a profit from open source software without contributing much back to the software’s creators. This is a common issue encountered by maintainers of popular open source projects. However, the Commons Clause isn’t a good solution for this problem, because it effectively neuters open source software, removing the vital freedoms identified in the open source definition, including free distribution and no discrimination against a specific field of endeavor. OSI President Simon Phipps called the Commons Clause an “abrogation of software freedom” after Redis changed its license.

In light of these recent conversations, OSI is calling organizations to band together in recognition of its authority to maintain a single, standard definition of open source:

Recently there have been efforts to undermine the integrity of open source by claiming there is no need for a single, authoritative definition. These efforts are motivated by the interests of a few rather than the benefit of all, and are at odds with the principles that have so demonstratively served us well in the past decades. If allowed to continue, these efforts will erode the trust of both users and contributors, and hinder the innovation that is enabled by open source software, just as surely as having multiple definitions of a kilogram would erode and undermine commerce.

OSI reached out first to its Affiliate Members, which includes the WordPress open source project, but not all members have responded in time for the publication of the post this week. The organization is still welcoming new signatories and will add more names to the list as it receives them.