OSDL's Stuart Cohen Unplugged

Meet Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Labs. In some ways a product out of IBM's old school era, Cohen and his organization are the ecumenical North Pole of an open source world, which is struggling to straddle the fence between the direction it's going (business mainstream) and the place it came from (the hacker community).

Meet Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Labs. In some ways a product out of IBM's old school era, Cohen and his organization are the ecumenical North Pole of an open source world, which is struggling to straddle the fence between the direction it's going (business mainstream) and the place it came from (the hacker community). Cohen and I grabbed a Podcastquiet corner in the press room at LinuxWorld on the last day of the event to talk about the OSDL, its role, and the mid-life crisis (leadership, patents, etc.) that the open source community is enduring in its present day incarnation. Here's the list of questions that Cohen addressed during my podcast interview (download the MP3, or learn how to have them automatically downloaded while you're sleeping). From some of the questions, you can sort of tell what his most previous answer was:

  • There are a lot of organizations that have the words "open source" in their name. Sometimes, especially for newcomers to the open source world, it's really hard to find true North. Can you describe where amongst the various open source organizations out there -- the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, etc. -- OSDL sits?
  • When you see business issues, are we talking about business issues as they relate to the various vendors out there who have a business they want to build around Linux and Open Source, or is it "business issues" for end users and enterprises that want to deploy open source?
  • For an enterprise that wants to go to the OSDL, what's the final deliverable? What do they get in the way of something they can take back and be more successful with open source?
  • To the extent that you have these technical workgroups that discuss issues relating to the kernel, what happens after that discussion is over? Does that information get fed back to the kernel developers like Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton? How does the process work?

  • of the participants in the OSDL, you mentioned a lot of different types of enterprises -- small busineses, medium businesses -- and you also talked a bit about how vendors are involved in the ecoysystem. What is the membership structure like? How do you join? When you join, what category do you go into? Are there fees involved?
  • You mentioned the legal side of it--that you have quite a bit of focus there. What happens at OSDL on the legal front? What sort of advice do you provide (if you provide advice), or what are the legal challenges that OSDL is taking on?
  • What is a legal inhibitor to open source?
  • Does the OSDL sees itself as an influential force on the other celestial bodies in the open source world?
  • We're at 58 licenses total in the OSI. A lot of people would look at that and say we already are out of control. The cat is already out of the bag so to say. Somewhere along the way, vendor-specific licenses started getting approved and once that cat got out of the bag, it was very difficult to put it back in. You can't do it for one vendor and then not do it for others. Looking at 58 licenses, how do you put the cat back in the bag? How do you cut the number of licenses back? How do you manage that problem? It seems like you'd get a lot of resistance -- at least the OSI would -- from all of the vendors who have a history of getting they're own licenses approved?
  • To the extent that a lot of licenses that are in that 58 are ones that vendors who are also members of the OSDL, can you use your influence and go back to them and say it's time to eliminate vendor-specific licenses?
  • You mentioned the GPL and there's also been a lot of discussion on whether the GPL itself is in need of a significant update. But the Free Software Foundation and the OSI have two very diamatrically opposed views of licensing. Richard Stallman at the FSF is very sensitive to the issue of patents and the OSI is not quite so sensitive. They don't require any specific patent language in their licenses. How will that problem get resolved in the process of nuclear non-proliferation: reducing the number of licenses out there?
  • The GPL obviously hasn't served everybody's needs or many of the open source projects that are out there operating under other licenses would have selected the GPL. How will that problem be overcome?
  • Quite frankly, from a vendor's point of view, if they're hearing from your other members that the proliferation issue is a real problem for them -- keeping track of all the licenses -- and that that is an impediment to adoption of open source, that would provide a lot of leverage on changing the whole structure of open source, getting the number of licenses down, getting more vendors to cooperate maybe on a handful of licenses as opposed to 58-plus.
  • Looking at the the OSI, there's been quite a bit of change in the leadership over there. Recently, Eric Raymond who was the co-founder and long-time president, stepped aside. Russ Nelson took his place. There's been a bit of controversy over Russ Nelson's conduct on the Internet. If you had to make a recommendation on how to bring the leadership of the open source community in line with the needs of business, because that's probably not where it is right now, what would you suggest?
  • Is there a reason that the OSDL and the OSI should not become one organization?
  • One of the less discussed issues of license proliferation is that the open source community is rather balkanized by that proliferation. You've got a lot of different projects and, to the untrained eye, there are a lot of people who think open source means that everybody is sharing everybody else's code. But the truth of the matter is that that's not what's happening. It's not as open as some people would think it to be. Are you also looking forward to the way code will be more freely shared amongst all the different projects once the proliferation is cut back?
  • It seems that the vendor community is turning out to be a three-sided community. There's one side with strictly proprietary software. Another where you're purely open source and then a third where you straddle the fence. I'm thinking of Novell for example. Is there going to be a point in the future where these three different sides have to come to terms and we're going to settle on one model that works for everybody?
  • Sun is one of those companies that straddles the fence and they recently released OpenSolaris under another license -- that was the 58th OSI license -- and that has not been without controversy, especially on the heels of IBM's donation of 500 patents to this "commons"; how is that issue going to resolve itself? If you had a chance to give [Sun's] Jonathan Schwartz some recommendations, what would they be?
  • Is Sun a member of OSDL?
  • Let's talk about defense funds, because there are a lot of different forms of legal protection out there for different parties in the open source community -- everybody from end users to vendors. Bruce Perens, who is very outspoken on issues relating to open source, feels as though if open source developers get sued, there's no defense fund that's big enough to really defend all of them. How do you view the whole defense fund strategy? How well protected are developers by defense funds?
  • Speaking of developers, one of the issues relating the CDDL was a patent related issue. Sun contributed 1600 patents but not to the global commons, just to developers who are writing code under the CDDL -- the "cuddle" license is how they're pronouncing it these days. Do you think that the idea that the CDDL is a very protected community, that Sun is saying 'Look, you come here and develop and we will protect you," that that creates any sort of attraction for existing developers on the Linux platform to move over to CDDL and OpenSolaris simply because the legal protection looks to be better?
  • How about the irony in the fact that the open source community, at least some parts of it, are very much against the idea of patents on software but now suddenly you've got a bunch of companies with patents who are coming forward and saying we're going to use the patents to protect the open source community? That's sort of ironic, isn't it?
  • Do you think that, by providing patents to the open source community, that this is the beginning of going from all patents to no patents?
  • What about patents on software? Does Stuart Cohen believe there should be patents on software? You have a background working for a company [IBM] that has a very large patent portfolio.
  • But should there be patents on software?
  • There will be. But should there be?
  • How did your experience at IBM help form your opinions and help to prepare you for this role as the CEO of the OSDL?