Istio Community Wary of Google's New Open Source Trademark Protection Scheme

Google says it's a way for open source projects to protect trademarks, but others see it as a way to retain control of its open source projects.

Christine Hall

July 14, 2020

5 Min Read
Istio Community Wary of Google's New Open Source Trademark Protection Scheme
Adam Berry/Getty Images

There's a cloud hanging over Istio, the popular Kubernetes-related open source project that originated at Google, according to some open source developers.

Google has created an organization to protect trademark's of open source technologies, including the Istio trademark, which is a first for open source. But critics see it as a move to increase control of the project, in line with an earlier move by Google to retain control of both Istio and Knative, another popular Kubernetes-related project.

Istio is a service mesh for managing microservices across an assortment of infrastructure, be it on premises data centers, cloud-hosted, in Kubernetes containers, or in services running on virtual machines. It's supported and distributed by everyone from large vendors like IBM, Red Hat, and VMware to small startups like Tetrate, to the biggest public clouds like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

Last week Google announced creation of the Open Usage Commons (OUC), which would protect the Istio trademark along with the trademarks of two other open source projects: Angular, a web application framework, and Gerrit, a web-based collaboration tool. Google said the new organization's purpose is to specify how vendors using those projects will be able to use the trademarks. Although it's starting with three Google-led projects, the company says it's throwing the doors open to all open source projects looking for a repository for their trademarks.

Related:What Service Meshes Are, and Why Istio Leads the Pack

It's not entirely clear what Google is trying to accomplish with this move. In an email to DCK, Google and Alphabet's director of open source, and now also chair of OUC, Chris DiBona, said Istio users can already use the trademark without written permission or license, which is pretty much in keeping with standard open source practices, and added that Google "has no interest in collecting fees for trademark licenses."

According to DiBona, OUC was established simply to give users "peace of mind that accurate, referential uses of trademarks are OK."

"Our focus is to extend the philosophy and definition of open source to project trademarks," he said. "The Open Usage Commons will work with the Istio community and leadership to establish any relevant guidelines. This could include conformance testing with the goal of providing users with clear trademark usage guidelines going forward."

The "definition of open source" is a reference to the Open Source Definition, a set of guidelines established in the 1990s by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

Related:Explaining Knative, the Project to Liberate Serverless from Cloud Giants

Speaking with DCK, Josh Simmons, OSI's president, pointed out that there is no mention of trademarks or patents in the Open Source Definition. But that doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot, he explained, since the definition also makes no mention of copyright, even though open source licenses specifically address copyright issues.

"Google did approach us ahead of the announcement and asked some questions," Simmons said. "It's good to be thinking about this. I'm glad they're thinking in these terms."

He also noted that typically foundations, such as the Linux Foundation or the Apache Foundation, provide a home for trademarks, but "not every project needs a foundation."

That later point is what's behind the unease around OUC in some open source circles. Some are seeing it as a way for Google to legitimize its current practice of keeping important open source projects in-house, where it can maintain total control instead of contributing them to foundations that offer an open governance, where everyone has a say.

This is especially true of many Istio developers, who felt burned last October when Google announced it was keeping development of the Istio project (along with the Kubernetes platform Knative) under its control after having promised to contribute the project to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

The disgruntled include not only individual developers but also large tech companies actively involved in developing and marketing the projects.

"Today’s announcement by Google of the creation of the Open Usage Commons is disappointing because it doesn’t live up to the community’s expectation for open governance," Jason McGee, an IBM VP and CTO of Big Blue's Cloud Platform wrote in a blog on the day of the announcement. "An open governance process is the underpinning of many successful projects. Without this vendor-neutral approach to project governance, there will be friction within the community of Kubernetes-related projects."

McGee pointed out that IBM is a founding member of the Istio project, and had helped it take root by contributing its own Amalgam8 code to be merged into Istio.

"At the project’s inception, there was an agreement that the project would be contributed to the CNCF when it was mature," McGee continued. "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."

Joe Beda, one of the original creators of Kubernetes who is now a principal engineer at VMware, which in 2018 acquired his Kubernetes-focused startup Heptio, told us that there had been rumors about OUC before Google announced it, and that it was good to now have some clarity. But, according to him, VMware, which is now deeply invested in Kubernetes, hasn't yet figured out where it stands on the issue.

"It's good to actually see what exactly Google is talking about here," Beda said. "There's a lot of discussions internally about trying to figure out what this means, what this looks like moving forward, how this impacts our investments in some of the affected projects -- specifically Istio. I think it's still too early for us to really understand where we stand and and how this is all going to pan out."

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About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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