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Google’s plan for the future of Istio? Open trademarks

The Open Usage Commons describes itself as "something wildly new in open source": a way to open up the use of trademarks while Google maintains control of some of its important open-source projects.

Chris DiBona, director of open source for Google and Alphabet​

Chris DiBona, director of open source for Google and Alphabet, is leading "something wildly new in open source."

Photo: Courtesy of Google

Google is about to attempt a fascinating experiment in open-source software, betting that it can satisfy critics who prefer a vendor-neutral approach to its key cloud computing projects while retaining full control of their future.

On Wednesday, Google will launch the Open Usage Commons, a new organization designed to host trademarks associated with three of its most promising open-source projects: Istio, Angular and Gerrit. The group will specify how companies building products and services around those open-source projects will be able to use those trademarks, buttressed by millions of dollars in Google Cloud marketing money, in their own marketing efforts.

"We're announcing that we're librarians for trademarks," said Chris DiBona, director of open source for Google and Alphabet and chair of the OUC, in an interview with Protocol.

"We're going to be bringing trademarks into the Open Source Definition," he added, referring to a widely accepted set of guidelines that outline the parameters of what is considered open-source software. The new organization will ensure that "everyone in the open-source chain — from project maintainers to downstream users to ecosystem companies — has peace of mind around trademark usage and management," the new group said in a blog post.

Nothing will change with respect to the governance models that control how code and higher-level concepts are incorporated into those projects, DiBona said. Istio — a service mesh project for managing microservices that has the highest profile of the three to be overseen by OUC — is currently controlled by Google. That's in contrast to Kubernetes, another important open-source project created by Google and transferred to the vendor-neutral Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2015.

Anyone can use open-source code, like that of Istio, when it is released under one of several commonly accepted licenses: Organizations can use it as part of their own internal tech infrastructure or even in their own products. But use of the trademarks associated with those projects is a very different subject.

To use Kubernetes as an example, one of the many reasons the container management project emerged as a de facto standard over the last few years was in part because the trademarks associated with the project were controlled by a vendor-neutral foundation, allowing companies like AWS and Microsoft to launch their own branded services using the Kubernetes name as it gained popularity.

But the CNCF also specifies a rotating cast of directors and major contributors to projects like Kubernetes, which prohibits a single vendor from being able to influence the future direction of the project in their best interests. (That's the theory, anyway.) The Open Usage Commons makes no such assurances but will instead move control of just the trademarks outside Google and outline specific ways contributors and users of those projects can use the trademarks within their own commercial services.

"Before, we could sort of count on the intent expressed in open-source licenses to handle questions around trademarks," DiBona said. But trademark guidelines in licenses were born of a more collegial era in open source, before companies could make a lot of money from offering open-source projects as a service. "The reality is, there's too much vagueness there for the modern age."

The Open Usage Commons also attempts to sidestep an issue that has dogged Google for almost a year.

As reported by Protocol in February, last year Google angered several companies and individuals working on Istio by reneging on long-stated plans to transfer Istio to a vendor-neutral foundation like the CNCF. The shift was driven by a group inside Google that believed it was a strategic mistake to let go of Kubernetes, rather than using it as a hook to entice people into Google Cloud, and feared the same thing would happen with Istio.

Then, in April, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian surprised many (including me, the person who asked him the question) when he said that Google would transfer the project to a foundation in the near future. The Open Usage Commons is not a foundation, and Google is not attempting to describe it as one.

DiBona said plans for the Open Usage Commons were underway before Kurian made those comments. Clarity around the use of trademarks was an important aspect of the push to get Google to release control of Istio, but open governance was equally if not more important to Google's critics in the enterprise open-source community.

Still, DiBona thinks providing an ostensibly neutral home for open-source trademarks is a big step.

"The point of open-source software licensing is that people can work together without having to have an 11-month negotiation between companies or organizations," DiBona said. "What we're doing with the OUC is we're saying, 'Listen, this area of trademarks, which was not clarified in any open-source license, is becoming the lever that people use to control each other in a way that I think is extremely inconsistent with the Open Source Definition.' That's what we're trying to attack."

DiBona is one of six members of the inaugural OUC board of directors, which also includes Alison Randal, former director of the Open Source Initiative, which set the Open Source Definition; Charles Lee Isbell Jr., dean of the Georgia Tech College of Computing; Cliff Lampe, a professor at the University of Michigan; Jen Phillips, head of program management at Google's Open Source Programs Office; and Miles Ward, chief technology officer at SADA Systems and formerly of Google Cloud.

"The Open Usage Commons is something wildly new in open source, and in the spirit of the transparency that propels open source, we'll be the first to tell you that the Commons intends to start small and walk before it runs," the group said in a blog post. DiBona said more details should be released before the end of the year.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Charles Lee Isbell Jr. and misspelled the name of Jen Phillips. It also misstated Alison Randal's role; she is a former director of the Open Source Initiative, not the current director of the Open Source Initiative. Updated July 8.

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