November 20, 2005

The Holy Open Source Media Empires (Eastern and Western variants)

Every student knows (as they say) that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Well, maybe it was sort of holy, and maybe it was sort of an empire, but in any case, students have to learn to distinguish it from the original Roman Empire, which was definitely Roman and definitely an empire, and also from the Eastern Roman Empire, which was certainly eastern and imperial, but no longer Roman, and the Western Roman Empire, which was definitely western, Roman and imperial, but existed only briefly and intermittently. And of course, there's also at least one rock band called Holy Roman Empire, which I don't expect to be in the least bit holy, Roman or imperial, though I guess you never know.

This is the sort of branding confusion that modern trademark law is intended to avoid. But ironically, confusion is now rampant with respect to the name "Open Source Media". For those of you who haven't already been following this story, there's a brief history below.

Somewhere in the lexicographical background, there is the term "open sources", used to refer to non-classified sources of information. The OED's earliest published citation for this term is

1980 Sci. Amer. Apr. 36/1 The size of the U.S. stockpile of lethal chemical munitions is classified information, but estimates can be made from open sources.

I'm sure that I heard this phrase used much earlier than 1980, and the New York Times archive shows a headline from 12/26/1951 "Open sources Give U.S. Gata on Soviet: Washington Relies Chiefly on Russian Press and Radio -- Envoys, Refugees Help", with sentences in the body of the article like "...those familiar with the problem know that the overwhelming quantity of such information comes from open sources, primarily those available even to diligent private scholars having no Governmental connection."

The first brand in this arena was the Open Source Initiative, "a non-profit corporation dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source Definition ... specifically through the OSI Certified Open Source Software certification mark and program". This is a software licensing thing, started by Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond and others as "a marketing program for free software", where free is used as in "free speech", following the lead of the Free Software Foundation. According to the OSI's on-line history, the phrase "open source" (in the current software licensing sense) was coined by Chris Peterson on 2/3/1998 at a strategy session in Palo Alto, California. "Open source" has become a very common phrase, with 329 million Google hits, used in all sorts of ways in all sorts of endeavors.

One of these endeavors is a radio show called "Open Source", hosted by Christopher Lydon, operated from Lowell, MA, by a non-profit corporation called Open Source Media, launched in the spring of 2005, and distributed by PRI. Chris Lydon's discussion of this project's origins references Tom Paine, I.F. Stone, and the Internet as God: "It’s invisible. It’s everywhere. It knows everything. Sing it now: It’s got the whole world in its hands. Its eye is on the sparrow, paraphrasing the Ethel Waters song, and I know it watches me." Chris opines that "American institutional journalism looks to me broken beyond repair", while "the redemptive energy of the new media seems suddenly to be gathering real force". He asks whether the program is "only ripping off a trendy phrase" by calling itself Open Source, and asserts that the answer is "no":

...we are serious followers of the “social gospel” of open source. We believe in fact that the critical work ahead is to extend open-source ideas, so effective in computer world, deeper into politics, culture, media and the rebuilding of civil society.

Everything we do at Open Source will be “open to inspection, improvement, adoption and reuse,” in Doc Searls‘ neat formulation. We will make all the content of Open Source available under a Creative Commons license for non-commercial use, with the standard proviso that our work is credited and further use is open.

OK, now the scene shifts to a different revival tent, this one on the west coast. During the summer of 2005, two noted bloggers, Roger L. Simon and Charles Johnson, started putting together an enterprise called Pajamas Media, named of course for the extraordinary crystallization of ancien-regime arrogance by Jonathan Klein (former CBS News VP) in his 9/9/2004 sound bite on the Rathergate scandal:

"You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

The Pajamas Media web site went live in September (I think), and early in the process, they decided to change the name:

... as we have gone forward putting together this company, it has become clear to us that we do not wish to be defined merely as gadflies in opposition to mainstream media. We owe our readers and our colleagues something bigger, an alternative to the structures we have lived with all our lives. It's not enough to criticize. We also have to build something new. To do that, we needed a name that would allow us to grow. And that name we are in the process of deciding.

What they came up with was "Open Source Media". The open letter from the founders starts by (mis?)quoting the FSF's slogan and the OSI's rephrasing:

"Free speech, not free beer!"

In 1985, that’s how the Free Software Foundation first described an idealized world wherein innovative ideas would flow freely though the collaborative environment of the internet. In casting about for a term that would denote freedom, not freebies, those who followed FSF coined the term "Open Source," intending it merely as a reference to the "source" code in which they programmed. It turned out to be much more than that.

They observe that "the term '"Open Source' had a ring to it", and quote Linus Torvalds as saying "The future is open source everything." They don't go so far as to deify the net, but they do offer a stirring vision of the free flow of digital grace:

...freedom, openness and transparency in media is an inevitable result of the technological advances that have given every citizen the chance to breathe deeply of the news, thought and opinion that hovers in the ether between us.

So, if you take a deep breath of that ether, you can see the associative connection to the ideas of free software and open source. But the connection to free (re-)distribution of information has been lost: all the (Western) Open Source Media stuff, as far as I can see, is asserted to be "Copyright © 2005 OSM Media, LLC All Rights Reserved".

Apparently the founders have gotten some complaints along this line, both from people who like the FSF/OSI ethos and from those who don't, because they further explain their choice as follows:

Some OSM readers have expressed consternation over our new company name, so please let us take a moment to explain--in the spirit of full disclosure--the story of its origin. At the outset, we formed a company under the masthead "Pajamas Media," after that now-famous remark about bloggers being "just a bunch of people sitting around in their pajamas." Then, as the idea for the company grew, we cast about for a new name that would reflect our ethos long after the joke grew old. Some of the unsuccessful names rejected along the way were "Alpha Media" and "Jellyfish Media," so don't be so hard on us about "OSM"--it could have been worse.

The goal of our enterprise is to bring gravitas and legitimacy to the blogosphere, to amplify the individual voices that compose it, and bring you the best of blogging as we know it, and to do so, we felt it wise and appropriate to arm ourselves with all of the conventional tools of business--including a trademark. To that end, we have filed an application for a trademark on the name OSM, and our legal corporate name is OSM Media, LLC. We have not trademarked the term "Open Source Media," and agree with those who point out the irony inherent in any attempt to do so. We consider Open Source Media to be a description of what we are and do, not a trade name.

This is puzzling. "Open source" is a term with a very specific meaning, defined and defended ad nauseam by the folks at OSI. What OSM Media LLC aims to do, admirable as it may be, is clearly outside that definition. It's plausible to say that OSM was inspired by certain characteristics of the open source movement, just as the Holy Roman Empire was inspired by memories of the old Western Roman Empire. But the phrase "Holy Roman Empire" doesn't refer to the rock band of that name by virtue of being a description, but rather because the band chose to adopt it, and the phrase "Open Source Media" seems to have a similar relation to the business enterprise recently started by Roger Simon and Charles Johnson.

[For more discussion from various points of view, see these two pages at Open Source Media (Eastern), and blog posts by Charles Johnson, Roger Simon, Dan Gilmore, Jeff Jarvis, Strategic Public Relations, Ann Althouse, Kevin Drum, Private RadioJames Joyner, David Corn, protein wisdom, Tony Pierce, The Talent Show, The Poor Man, Wonkette, Dennis the Peasant, Monty Python, etc.]

[Update: OSM has folded their hand -- read the latest on the OSM site, by Roger Simon and Charles Johnson, under the title "Excuse us while we change back into our pajamas". Money quote:

So how did this happen in the first place? Back at the beginning, certain, shall we say, paternalistically minded parties (i.e., the guys in suits) decided that we should act like grownups, and being as yet somewhat immature--at least as businesspeople--we did as we were told.

Which is how, one day, we ended up sitting around a conference table listening to representatives from a "branding" company. What followed is still a bit of a nightmarish blur, but it involved a PowerPoint presentation on the history of names, and such probing questions as, "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?" (Which is how we almost ended up as Jellyfish Media.)

Enough said. So, in the spirit of "open source," we thought we'd tell you the real story behind the reason for our name change.

Fair enough, and a lesson to us all. Except that "the spirit of 'open source'" doesn't really mean "telling everyone a lot of all-rights-reserved things about yourself". At least that's not what it means to me. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 20, 2005 08:45 AM