Google forced to defend new trademark foundation as Knative community takes umbrage at 'neutrality' claims

Two directors from Google, no other vendors represented. That's vendor-neutral?

Google's open source director Chris DiBona has defended the web giant's motives in forming a new foundation to manage open-source trademarks during a Knative community meeting.

The Open Usage Commons (OUC) was set up, according to its board, "because free and fair open source trademark use is critical to the long-term sustainability of open source."

Google has donated three trademarks to the organisation, those of Gerrit, Angular and Istio. This is of particular interest to the Knative community since both Knative and Istio run alongside Kubernetes, and can play key roles in making K8s less burdensome to operate, depending on the your application architecture.

Kubernetes itself was donated by Google to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) in 2015. It was assumed that Knative and Istio would follow, but they did not. The initial reason was that the projects were insufficiently mature, but as time passed it became apparent that Google was reluctant to let them go, presumably for commercial reasons.

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In 2019, the internet titan stated: "Google leadership has considered this, and has decided not to donate Knative to any foundation for the foreseeable future."

The problem is that other organisations contributed to the projects under the impression that they would find a vendor-neutral home. In the case of Istio, a particularly vocal critic is IBM, which said recently: "At the project's inception, there was an agreement that the project would be contributed to the CNCF when it was mature. IBM continues to believe that the best way to manage key open source projects such as Istio is with true open governance, under the auspices of a reputable organization with a level playing field for all contributors, transparency for users, and vendor-neutral management of the license and trademarks."

The formation of the Open Usage Commons to manage open-source trademarks looks like an attempt to satisfy the demand for vendor-neutral ownership of these projects without the involvement of CNCF – though Google has never stated why CNCF is not in fact a suitable home for them.

Questions the Knative community is interested in include whether Knative will follow Istio to the OUC, as well as more detail about what role the OUC will play in practice. There is also the underlying question about what exactly Google is trying to achieve and how it impacts the projects.

Attendees of the virtual community call (DiBona's section is about 65 minutes in) last week gained clues but not clarity. DiBona's line is that the purpose of the OUC is to address "uncertainty about trademarks" but not why Google felt this required a new organisation.

The board of the OUC, he said, is "six people, two Googlers and then four non-Googlers, we all have equal votes so it's not some sock-puppet organisation like some others." Then came the question, will any other vendor be able to join the board?

DiBona knows how not to give a straight answer. "We think that the board or directors will probably grow over time," he said. "We're just getting started." He added: "This is not a vendor organisation, this is not designed to replace a Linux Foundation or a CNCF... we're specifically trying to create guidance for any project to use around how to maintain trademarks consistent with the OSD [Open Source Definition]."

The reason we composed the board in the fashion we did is that we wanted people who had the best interests of computer science and open source at heart

Would it not make sense, in order for the OUC to have "the perception of neutrality", for others to be able to have a seat on the board? "The only thing that's going to prove neutrality will be time... the reason we composed the board in the fashion we did is that we wanted people who had the best interests of computer science and open source at heart," said DiBona.

"Not only did we make it so that Google has only one third of the votes... but also Google can never own more than 49 per cent of an external body like this without invoking rules and regulations around our anti-trust posture. Neutrality is a legal thing for me, it doesn't really matter if people like it or not."

Asked what would happen if Knative were in the CNCF, DiBona said: "Knative is not in the CNCF... the CNCF has been pretty hostile to the creation of the Open Usage Commons to be frank, so that seems like their problem, and I hope they get past it because they shouldn't feel threatened by this."

One of the puzzles around the OUC is whether, under US trademark law, it is possible to separate the project mark from control of the project itself. If it cannot be separated then has Google in effect handed control of these projects to the OUC (despite saying it has not done so? Or could the move threaten the validity of the trademarks?

DiBona said that the claim that you could not separate the trademark from project governance was "not completely true. If you look at how trademark law works you need to have some technical oversight or technical impact within a given implementation of the trademark covering work."

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He believes that the OUC may have to implement conformance testing for the projects in order to show its involvement with the work the trademark covers. "You don't have to be in ownership or control of the steering committee or even have committer rights," he said.

DiBona at times downplayed the role of the OUC. "It doesn't do project governance, it doesn't do conferences, all it does is put together trademark guidelines, so when you talk about homing the project inside the OUC, that's just not a thing," he said.

Did the Istio steering committee vote and approve the handover of the trademark to the OUC? DiBona did his best not to answer this one. "I would pass that back to Dan Ciruli," he said. The Istio steering committee is composed of six from Google, three from IBM, and one from IBM-owned Red Hat. Ciruli is a Googler.

"The people in IBM didn't want to do this and they were overruled... there's a lot of pussyfooting around on this and the reality is IBM really wants to dictate the use of these projects and we disagreed with them," said DiBona.

After some discussion, a voice interjected: "The Istio committee did not vote on this."

With regard to Knative, DiBona seems keen to emphasise that, no, it will not go to CNCF. "Do we intend to make a decision around donation of Knative to CNCF? We already did, I know a lot of people didn't like that, but that's what it was," he said.

Will Knative go to OUC? "It might be a better choice than having Google hold it," said DiBona. "The reality is, ask me in three to six months. I have a lot to get done inside the OUC with the existing trademarks that we have before taking on more work."

That sounds like yes to us. ®

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