What’s in a name? That which we call the Open Web Foundation

OWFThis is an open letter to the members of the Open Web Foundation, posted to the open-web-discuss mailing list.

The one thing we do better than anything else is say what we are not about.

Over the past few months I came to the conclusion that the limited role we assigned this foundation – to produce a reusable legal framework for open specifications – does not justify the ‘Open Web Foundation’ name. In fact, it is the stuff we keep ruling out – the proposed openweb.org advocacy site, building infrastructure to host communities, or represent the Open Web community at large – which is what most people expect this organization to be about.

I strongly believe this is one of those cases where doing little is more damaging than doing none. Having an organization called the Open Web Foundation that is doing so little to promote and develop the open web is standing in the way of motivating others to do more. Names and appearances matter.

A few months ago I wrote about setting a new course. The general sentiment among the board was that we should remain focused on our initial limited objective of producing a reusable legal framework. There was little to no interest in raising funds and building a well-resourced organization that can deliver the infrastructure and support needed for end-to-end community projects.

At the same time, we are still being approached by other organizations to participate in the greater context of the open web, solely based on our name and perceived purpose. It is also the name that brings greater attention to what we do. Calling our license “The Open Web Foundation Agreement” makes people treat it differently than if it was called “The Open Specification Agreement”. This is like an organization called “The World Peace Foundation” produce a conflict resolution process aimed at solving fights between neighbors.

I am well aware of the complexity and risks involved in setting out to do much more than we are currently set to accomplish. I still believe it is well-worth it.

This organization was based on a reality that no longer exists. The communities we set to help are mostly gone or inactive. I am not aware of any new community-based initiatives emerging in the past 6 months.

At the same time, those who have been successful recently, such as the OpenID work with the US government, demonstrate the need for a much higher level of engagement and resources. I am sure the existence of a well-established foundation helped OpenID to be taken seriously.

In addition, the recent experience with the OAuth brand (as used in OAuth WRAP) showed the danger in not having a well-established governance for this work. The people who created OAuth have for the most part moved on, and the lack of governance around it is now threatening its future.

The OAuth model (which we originally used to justify this effort), produced a successful specification in a very short period of time. However, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Projects like Portable Contacts and Activity Streams have been lingering for a long time without producing final specifications. They also seem to be getting traction without having a legal framework in place. What they can use is more help with editorial and publication work and resources for tools and documentation. They also need to figure out what to do with their trademarks, website ownership, and decisions about future version.

It is no longer clear to me that what we are trying to do is aligned with reality.

The OWFa is an important document. I can tell you that I had multiple internal conversations at work where people suggested we used it for releasing work instead of creating our own license. Making it easier for companies to release IP under well-understood terms is a very good thing for the open web. But we don’t need a foundation with 100 members and a 9 seats board for that. The upcoming CLA work is important but is being proposed based on the state of the community a year ago.

Our name, missing, and actions are now out of alignment with each other and with the reality of the open web.

Before discussing solutions, it would be great to hear how others feel about this.

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