Open Source Ombudsman

A colleague laughed when I mentioned I was going to start an Open Source Ombudsman at Sun. "What a British word", he said. I explained a little what it would entail - that it was a way for people outside Sun to raise concerns about Sun's open source practices. "Ah, a mediator", he said. "No," I replied, "more an advocate. Someone to act on behalf of the little guy within the big corporation."

The Ombudsman is a common feature of public service in the UK. An ombudsman listens to complaints and concerns from individuals and then acts impartially and confidentially on their behalf. It's not always possible to resolve every issue to the satisfaction of both parties, but at least there's a chance for a fair hearing. An Ombudsman is your personal insider who can take your problem and treat it as their own.

Why an Ombudsman - the FreeBSD Story

It all started at the end of 2004 when I heard third-hand that FreeBSD had their license for the Java runtime revoked - they'd complained about it in the annual report. FreeBSD were given a no-charge license to the Java runtime ages ago, on an annual, automatically-renewing basis. Sun's legal department had been changing the terms of the Java runtime licenses (good changes by the way) and had written to their contact at FreeBSD saying the old license could thus not be automatically renewed and a new license needed to be accepted. The community at FreeBSD had no contact at Sun to discuss the matter with casually, read the legal word 'revoked' in the letter and assumed the worst, that Sun had finally turned to the Dark Side and wanted money with menaces or worse.

I took it on myself over the break to investigate, and found that actually there had been a breakdown of communication on both sides. Sun was still extending a free license on friendly terms - the license just needed to be accepted afresh because the terms had changed. I mediated a contact between FreeBSD and Sun Legal and everything turned out just fine - no evil, just a new, no-charge, no-stings license so FreeBSD could include the Java platform in their distribution.

I realised that, if there had been a clearly-visible contact point where FreeBSD could have asked for help, they wouldn't have needed to use their annual report to raise a panic that Sun had turned evil. It was then that I decided we needed an Open Source Ombudsman.

How Do I Use The Ombudsman?

The Ombudsman isn't there to act as Sun's help-desk. Don't write in to chase correspondence, propose business deals, ask for press interviews, look for a job or anything like those things. Write in when you see Sun doing something clueless related to open source communities, software or policy in a way that affects you personally. Send your e-mail to Ombudsman at Sun dot com and include:

  1. Your true name and affilliation
  2. Your contact details, including a telephone number
  3. Your issue in sufficient detail to allow another sympathetic person to speak on your behalf and advocate your issue
  4. An indication of whether you want your identity to remain confidential inside Sun (it will never be disclosed outside Sun without getting your explicit permission)
  5. An indication of whether you are happy for your issue (anonymised and summarised) to appear on Sun's web site (a planned feature)

What Happens Next

Once the Ombudsman (me at the moment) gets your message, you'll get a reply to confirm your intent and then it will be anonymised and passed to one of the leaders of Sun's internal open source community who will present the issue internally as if it were his or her own. There's no promise you'll get what you want - there is a promise you'll get a fair hearing.

There has already been a trickle of e-mail into the Ombudsman - keep it coming, but please follow the guidelines. Together we can make Sun an even better open source citizen than it is already.


This is a great idea. Posting them online really adds to your thoughts about the need for transparency. Keep up the good work Simon. I think you are going to be really successful in your new position.

Posted by Adam Moore on August 21, 2005 at 02:35 PM PDT #

Ombudsman is a Swedish word. I guess the British people nicked it from us.

Posted by Jasse Jansson on August 22, 2005 at 06:03 PM PDT #

This is a cool site.

Posted by John on August 26, 2005 at 07:56 PM PDT #

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