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E19: Amanda Brock, state of OSS in UK, the Open Invention Network & defensive patents

In this episode I chat with Amadna Brock, the CEO of Open UK. Amanda is a key driver of open source in the UK as she coordinates technology, business and industry.

I think this podcast will be useful to anyone who wants to know more about the state of open source in the UK and Europe. Some of the other interesting topics we cover include:

  • The Open Invention Network which is the largest patent licensing community in the world for open source software
  • The importance of defensive patent strategies for enterprises
  • And how contributing to open source community’s gives a company power the to influence the projects direction

Note: Open Source For Business is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Henry: Amanda, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Amanda: Morning Henry.

Henry: So we met about a year ago to talk about open source software, and at that point in time you’ve just taken up your role at Open UK, but I know that before that for 25 years you were actually a lawyer.

So can you walk us through your careers evolution to give us a better idea of how you actually got here today?

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. So back in 2008, just over 13 years ago, I had been a lawyer for over a decade. I was in-house. I was pretty senior. I used to run legal teams, particularly in startups or areas of businesses where they were building a team or they’re starting from scratch or evolving a team. 13 years ago, as I say, I joined Canonical, an open source company that’s pretty big these days. Back then, I was employee 165. They were pretty unheard of unless you were very into open source. And I joined to set up and run the legal team, which I did for five years. Now, I suppose when I joined, I joined to be a commercial corporate lawyer.

It was my background. I had a strong history in tech. I’d worked in .com era across an ISP. And I guess nobody really expected that when I joined, I would completely fall in love with open source. I was getting into the community, the ethos, what it was all about, so that was a bit of a strange one, a bit of a revelation for me. After I left Canonical, I stayed with various open source projects, kept my involvement in open from 2013 onwards. And then back in 2018, I was asked to get involved with OP UK, which I did in 2019.

Henry: What was it that you love so much about the open source community that really got you hooked?

Amanda: I think it’s the fact that… well, there’s a few things actually. The smart people, I really like the people involved in it. I liked the culture. I liked the collaboration. I liked the concept of sharing being at the heart of everything we do. The practicality of the way everything is reused and built upon, it really appeals to me.

Henry: I think it definitely be. A lot of people will agree with you. I’ve asked a few people that, and it seems to be a very similar answer that got them drawn in and hooked for life. A lot of these people, and Johnny Bacon was one of the…

Amanda: Johnny was there with me. Johnny as a baby back then, he was a community manager at Canonical.

Henry: He was the second guest on this podcast. I asked him the same question; he had a very, very similar answer. He said that you all went down to the pub for quite a lot of years.

Amanda: How much practicing did your Pommie accent had taken. Yeah, we did.

Henry: A lot of practice looking in the mirror.

Amanda: Yeah, it was a very social place. And obviously we could still travel; we did a lot of sprints and things in the office and all hands. We hung out together. We really got to know each other. In some ways I remember Jane Silver, the CEO describing us at the time as the cool kids. And we were. It was a moment in time at Canonical was groundbreaking.

And a lot of the best people in open source have passed through at some stage in my five years there. It was also a very close place, I assume that’s reflected over the open source way. I hear people in Red Hat talking about working there and it being similar. There’s no hierarchy in a traditional sense. Everybody’s able to have an opinion and that kind of culture matters, I think.

Henry: Definitely. And what are the aims of Open UK, the place that you’ve been running for the last year over a year now?

OpenUK’s Mission

Amanda: It’s interesting. So I’m really lucky in that I joined something on the basis that I could completely transform it. And we were a bit like the other country-specific NGOs, looking purely at software, really focused on SMEs and really focused on supply chain. Now, those things all matter and I’m not in any way diminishing them, but what we’ve done is pool together this amazing board of people in the UK and sits down and think strategically with a clean sheet of paper.

We’ve come up with the three opens; open source software, open hardware and open data. And we believe that today you have to amalgamate those three because data is at the heart of everything we do with software today.

And then if you talk to the hardware guys and you look at what’s developing there around things like open Silicon, you’ll see that it’s difficult to differentiate the edges. So we brought together the three opens and we’re not just about software. I say just obviously that on its own is huge, but we are about the three opens. And we set a vision then, which was UK leadership in open technology and to develop and sustain that. That’s not a sort of xenophobic thing.

That’s about looking at our geographical audience, and it was triggered by Brexit that we should do that. And look at that geographical audience, bring them together and create a vibrant community that has a voice.

Now, as we’ve evolved, that community piece has become the first pillar, and we want to demonstrate the scale of that community in the UK to allow that voice to be heard in legal and policy, which then lets us make the UK a great place to do open end, but also in really importantly from, so as we focus locally so we can collaborate globally. And our third piece is education and learning because we understand that if you have a community, you influence it, you make us this hub of open, then we look at the next stage and the next stage, the next generation and building their skills, whether that’s at a business level with things like our future leaders group or whether that’s bringing the right digital skills to young people.

We are actually one of the five finalists in the open source community challenge. We’ll find out if we’re a winner of that next week on the seventh, but in that where we’re looking at building coding skills, but at the same time teaching what opens all about, teaching the basic principles and this year’s course is based on the open source definition on the 10 principles. So yeah, we’ve got a lot going on.

And what I find is that over time as different people get involved, their influence comes in. So now we’re speaking to a lot of the open source companies. You either have a very big presence in the UK or a strong presence in the UK who was founded here or who are still UK. And talking to them, we see a real need to develop on the entrepreneurial side and to help to build those skills. So we’re looking at bringing on board a founders forum, and an entrepreneur in residence and all being well, we’ll be announcing that in April.

Henry: So I wanted to start off by focusing on a great initiative that Open UK has been doing this year. And that’s a three-phase report called the state of open UK in 2020. For those listening, I’ll leave a link to the report in the description. And I read online that the purpose of the report is to allow business, industry and the public sector to better understand the scale and adoption of open source within the UK, but also to help to plan new digital initiatives around it. So, so far you’ve released the first part of the report, which I read, assess the current state of open source in the UK and also the country’s position in the global open source landscape.

So, what are some of the interesting things that the first part of the report found?

State of Open Source in the UK Report

Amanda: Yeah. So you probably heard all the stereotypes about British people, and I think what we’ve discovered is culturally, if we didn’t already know this about yourself has been a self-awareness exercise. Culturally, we’re quite reserved, culturally we’re not very good at saying, oh, I’m good at that. It’s just not in our nature. You’re always sort of taught not to be like that. And I guess it’s one of the major distinctions between us and the North Americans who are really good at saying, Hey, I can do that, that’s me. I think it’s time we change that for open source; otherwise we’re going to get left behind. And what we’ve realized is that we were the biggest contributor in the European Union by far. Germany was behind us as a close second. France was way behind as a sort of third, and then you have the rest of Europe.

Now, that’s something that we had never really shouted about, we’d never drawn neither. I think in CNCS Landscape, the fifth biggest contributor in the world. But if you look at the four ahead of us in terms of size and scale, they’re so much bigger, but per capita, we are one of the world’s biggest contributors to open source. And if I’d said UK and open source to you, you wouldn’t automatically say to me, oh my God, there’s so much going on in the UK. Part of the reason for that is that the UK companies, the founder desire to shift them to the US or they get sold in, or they just get absorbed up into it. And that’s part of the phone does work, we’re going to be looking at, is why that’s happening and how do we need to change?

But already in my conversations with those founders, you know, we get back to the same issues that companies based on open have all over the world, things like your revenue model, your commercial model, how you manage your IP, how you evolve the business, how you sell something that you give away or don’t and create something else around that? But what we’ve also come back to with the UK is a bit of a confidence gap. And that confidence gap is the confidence to stand up and say, well, I’m actually, I’ve chosen to stay in the UK, not moved to Asia, not moved to the US or wherever it is, and I’m going to run my business here. And actually government to make that competitive, here’s what we need; so looking at the rapport as phase one, what we’ve done is we’ve looked at the existing landscape. We’ve looked at the data that was already available about things like number of developers and we’ve updated that for 2021. We’ve taken formula that others have created around how you assess it.

And if you look at the really worst case, which is definitely way too low, you’re looking at something; I think it was 14 billion in contribution per annum to the UK’s GDP. If you look at the work that European Commission have just completed, which they shared on the 5th of February, we haven’t quite got the report yet, which is a shame, but we do the data. And if we apply their methodology, we’re contributing up to 43 billion per annum to the UK economy, which is just massive. And it’s even more massive, if you look at the most recent after our report on Organizational Tech Nation, came out with a report saying that the UK digital economy was worth 248 billion.

Now, I believe that the figures we’ve given are way, way too low. So if we were to take that 43 billion, I think you could increase that by 50 to a hundred percent to look at what we’re really contributing. So I think when you then go back to the UK digital economy, where at least a third of it, and that’s really going to shake things up a bit. Because as we look at digital strategies, as we look at policies, things like tax break, skills for the future movement of workers; as we talk about all of those, we’re not currently talking about those to improve digital skills in the UK. But if we can demonstrate that’s where our business people are, that’s where our technology people are, those are what we need, then I think we can get government to listen. Nobody’s going to listen to you unless you can prove your point, so that’s why we went out and started the report. And it’s been brilliant. The reception we’ve had to it has been amazing, but even in the people I would have said, well, you know, the hardcore open source people, just giving them that data opens the conversation up. It gives them something to hang their argument on. So, I think it’s a really good thing to have done.

I’m conscious I’m talking an awful lot Henry, but as a podcast, I suppose. If you look at what we want to do with it for the next two phases, and we’ll kick off phase two when I get back after the Easter holiday, basically. So we want there to create a set of questions and we will keep them as short as we can. It’s likely to be something like 20 questions. We’ll send those out to industry, not to technology, and we’ll get them to look at whether they’re using open or not to try and identify the scale of utilization.

So normally when people value open, they look at the inbound, they look at lines of code numbers of developers, so instead of doing that, we want to see how much it’s used in business because of digital transformation. And at the same time, we’ll start phase three’s work, and phase three’s where it will be looking at different ways of valuing. Now, you may have come across something called Donor Economics. There is a book published on Thursday this week by chap called Will Page called Tarzan Economics. Will is Scottish actually, but based in London. He was Spotify he’s economist and he’s looking at ways that you can value the digital economy, not just software, not just open source. And he’s thinking about the music sector, which is a good comparator, because if you look at that, if you go back 20 years, it was all created by record labels and produced by them. If you look today, a 10th comes from them and 90% comes from individuals, and that’s a bit like software.

I often quote Mark Shuttleworth, my old boss, and he talks about not being able to use the lens of the past, where software was in the hands of the few and having to look forward where it’s in the hands of the many, of course, thanks to open source. So I think there’s some really good comparators there. And what we want to do is we want to demonstrate a different kind of value. We want to show the value these businesses are getting out of using open and how much is generating in the economy. Because I think we’ll see, not just the UK, but all over the world is that through digital transformation companies have shifted and they’ve understood that their products are created, distributed, consumed through software, and that they’ve become software companies. They all have dev ops. They all understand the need for software and software developers.

What the C-suite generally does not yet fully understand is that they’re using open source and that there’s values, but there’s also responsibility. And I think you start by showing them the users, you show them the value as a consumer; you show them the responsibility and the benefits of being somebody sitting around the table, helping to define how the projects move forward and actively contributing. And that’s really how you create that engagement cycle. So, we’re hoping that the questions will help draw that out and that we can… even to those who don’t understand yet they’re using it, we can help to show them that there are, so there’s quite a big project really.

Henry: A very big project. And it sounds like it’s definitely a yearlong thing. You’ve got something to look forward to at every point in the year, starting to work on. And just on the point of how companies are now taking or seeing the value of not in the using open source, but getting involved with the communities. I was talking on the podcast the other day with Patrick McFadden, our good friend from OpenTech Response.

And he was saying, if the companies aren’t involved with open source communities of the libraries that they’re using, then it’s just a ticking time bomb. I’d now like to shift gears and ask you a question about your role as a European representative for the Open Invention Network. So, what is this organization?

The Open Invention Network

Amanda: OIN is something that I got involved with when I was at Canonical back in, I think 2008, actually, it was one of the first things that I find. And back then, there was a lot of talk about patents. Patents had been a big issue for open source, and they still are, just maybe in a slightly different way. So, one of the problems with patents when you look at technology generally is that as an intellectual property right, they are a grant of a monopoly.

So, with copyright, you are able to stop someone taking your output, your code, they cannot just use what you’ve done, unless you give them a license, and that’s the whole basis of open-source. Patent are a bit of an adjunct and they give the creator, the innovator – the novator, the person who creates a novel idea, they give them the right in the idea, and that’s quite a different thing.

So if you think about software, if you think about something like a phone, there are at least 80,000 patents in your phone. It’s incredible. What you have is a state of plain technology, where when you look at any particular area, everybody working on that is driving to the same outputs, they’re trying to get to the next stage. And that next stage is clear. And the one who does and who registers at first; potentially can get a patent and exclude everybody else.

So you have to think about the nature of patents and how that sits with open source, and that excludes the right. With patents, the licensing is a little bit more tricky and the way they sit with our open source license is a little bit more tricky. So the open source communities had come up with this really elegant solution, as you would expect, it’s based on collaboration. And the idea is that it’s fair enough, if you happen to have patents, we are agnostic, right? We’re not going to tell you, you shouldn’t have them. Some companies have them defensively like Red Hat. And then what you see is that we’ll take those and we’ll agree that we won’t sue each other. And we’ll agree to share in the same ways we share our code, to the extent that that relates to open source.

And what OIN does, is OIN is the world’s biggest defensive patent pool ever in history. It’s the biggest defensive intellectual property organization ever in history. And the beauty of it, this elegant solution I talk about is it’s based on a cross license, as I say, where we all agree that we’ll share any patents and we won’t sue each other with respect to them. And they’re about three and a half thousands members and licensees who’ve signed up to that, but nobody pays anything.

I think that’s critical to the whole open source model, so it is absolutely free to join. Now, there’s obviously a cost of administering and managing that, and that was paid by the founders. So the six founding companies, there are two additional companies that have become main board members, and there were two affiliates. And one of those affiliate members is Canonical. And I took canonical into OIN. The difference between the licensees and the members is that they donate, and we donated 5 million at Canonical and it was deal. We made a decision to do that as opposed to registering patents, which I think very much was the right thing.

Personally, I’m not a fan of patents. Well, I could be a fan of patents, but I’m not. I’m somebody who thinks that patterns are fine in a context like the pharma industry, where they’re very clearly what they were designed to be, which is a reward for innovation. But in software, I think they’re an inhibitor. They stop new entrance, they stopped development, they stopped competition, and I don’t think they work in software. Now, that’s not OIN’s view. OIN is patent agnostic.

You can have them when you can and it’s entirely up to you. You can sign up with no patents and you still get the benefit of the licensee. You can say that you want to be part of it. You actually give nothing, but you still get the benefit of this patent pool that we pulled together. And to my mind, signing up to OIN is something that’s part of your evolution. Any organization using open source should be in there. But as you go down that governance route, there is no excuse not to have signed up. So as you start to become a responsible member of the community as part of the good housekeeping of being.

Henry: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And one of the previous guests in the podcast, Mickey McCauley, he discussed how IBM topped the US patent list for the 28th consecutive year in a row. At first glance, I thought, okay, that’s not good, that’s bad for open source communities, because it ultimately limits their ability to innovate.

However, then when I talked to him, he said that IBM pledged to use those patents defensively, like you were talking about for things like the Linux community and other open source communities to actually stop patent trolls from suing them. So, I thought that was really interesting as a strategy. And I think some people might think that IBM is actually a big, bad player, but as we all know, IBM’s making the shift from blue to red now, which is Red Hat.

IBM and open source

Amanda: I wouldn’t just say they’re making that shift now. It took me a little while to understand the landscape in open source, but IBM has been one of the biggest financial contributors. Now, you could look at someone like Microsoft who says 2018 has really engaged, and I think GitHub shows Microsoft as the biggest contributor for lines of code. The 13 years that I’ve been involved, IBM has been there. It’s been funding… OIN is 15 years old, IBM was one of the six initial founders who put in 20 million and its patent pool, so IBM has been a consistent. The Red Hat piece was just another step in the journey, I think.

Henry: So, given your experience, I’m really interested in curious to know what are some of the key trends that you’ve been noticing in the industry that you think enterprises listening should be aware of?

Key trends enterprises need to be aware of

Amanda: That’s a good question, Henry. There’s been an obvious shift with the platform economy and the way that we see open source developing. And I think that the biggest trend that I’ve seen is the pervasiveness and the move across sectors. So we’ve always said open sources for everybody, but I think in 2021, with the acceleration of digital transformation that the pandemic has caused, which is the silver lining, I think; what we now see is open source everywhere.

So when I was working on the report, we were talking about… I spoke to a relatively senior figure in a cloud company. And what he said to me is why are you doing this? Because open source is like gravity, it’s everywhere, and there is no point in fighting it. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to accept it and then get on. And I think that, that’s the key thing that we’re seeing now.

I don’t think it’s a particular technical trend or evolution. I think it’s this fact that it is everywhere. And if your podcast is for C-suite business people, primarily; if you are one of those, what you know, need to work out is the value of your use to you, which is going to be incredibly significant and how you can leverage that to make it as much as possible. And the way to do that is to bring in knowledgeable people. Not saying, get rid of your existing team or say augment it, add to it, bring in people who understand how to be part of the open source community and to collaborate with the open source community.

And that’s a business community in the main these days. Bring people in who can do that and get your seat at the table so that you can contribute back. And in that contribution, you gain some power because you can also help to shape what’s happening. And by shaping what’s happening, you gain your own control, despite the fact that you were part of this probably overwhelming community, if you look at it from the outside in. So I think the major trend, the major thing that’s happening is the mainstreaming. Sometimes you hear people say that software is eating the world, and then Jims [Amnon] would say to you open source is eating his lunch. I think we’re now at a point in time where open source is gravity, and you need a little bit of help to work with that gravity and make it work to your best advantage.

Henry: Definitely. I couldn’t agree more. And that’s definitely a premise that we believe in at OpenTeams is that working with the community allows you – it gives you that power to… probably power isn’t the right word. You’ve got to be quite careful about how you talk about commercial enterprises working with open source communities, but it gives you the leverage that you can then have a say in the way and direction that a certain project goes.

Amanda: Yeah, I think power is the right word because it’s about the power of open. It’s not about leveraging power over a community because if you join part of a community, you’re part of a community, you’re not in charge.

Henry: Definitely. I agree with you there. You also have a book coming out later year, and the chapter that you’ve written in that book is about commercial models and revenue streams and open source. Can you touch on that for a bit?

Amanda: Sure, sure. So the book is a second edition. It’s the first that I’ve additive and it will be the last that I edit on my own. It has been the biggest job. I had no idea what I was taking on and it might’ve been slightly foolish, but it is almost done at this point. There are about 20 authors who are some of the world’s leaders in their spaces. People like Pam Chest stick on trademarks, Voice Smith on copyright, so it’s got those very legal pieces. It is called Open Source Software Law Policy and Practice. It’s published by Oxford University Press, but as well as those legal pieces, there’s a chapter on community with Steve [Wallen] and Ross Gardner at Microsoft, and how you develop communities. There’s a chapter on sustainability in open source. There’s a chapter on, I suppose open source. So, it covers what you need to know if you are looking at the governance side.

I’ll talk a little bit about my chapter in a second. Now, it’s been done by Oxford University Press who are a very established publisher and it’s really expensive which you would expect. But the beauty of it is that the Veatch Foundation have given us funding to allow it to be open access. So when it’s published around September, it will be freely available to everybody, and that’s, I think the best thing about it and the thing I’m most proud of. In terms of content, there’s a chapter on the economics of open, but my chapter is about commercial models and revenue streams and a little bit about contracts. And it looks at the fairly limited scope that there are for revenue generation, the different models that there are, and actually teach you through the history, because it’s very possible to make money out of open.

You have to understand how you’re doing it, and you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. But fundamentally, open source is not a business model, so you can’t just rock out, make something open and expect it to work. You have to think it through and understand what you’re doing. And you have to understand that you cannot, if you are going to call something open source, put it onto a proprietary license like SPL, and you cannot just rely on the revenue generation happening, cannot exclude a third party from taking your code and using it on something else.

And it comes back Henry to where we started, and we were talking about learning and the open source definition, and we’re going to be teaching it to high school kids this year. Unfortunately, some founders haven’t learned it and they don’t fully understand what open means when they take advantage of all the benefits of scale open brings. And we’re seeing it being used a little bit as a marketing exercise and then flipping to proprietary. And that’s really not what community and contribution is all about. So, I hope that my chapter will help to give some guidance on that.

Henry: Learning is definitely important. But before we wrap this up, I’d like to ask you my favorite question. When you think about the future of open source software, what excites you most?

The future of open source

Amanda: This is very personal. From a personal perspective; I’m sitting in the UK, we’ve talked about the UK, really being a center of excellence in open source. And for the next few years, that’s going to be my focus and my engagement. And I’m excited to see the reactions from people to working on that, to pulling together to building our community and making it a much more present community and to build that presence. So for me, the excitement is very much about being a part of the leadership around cutting edge technology in the UK and helping us to build out a really thriving community.


Henry: It’s exciting and already as one of the largest contributors. And I think it was top five users of open source in the world the UK was. It’s great to see that we’ve got such great leadership backing that. And as an Australian, I think we’ve still got a connection with the UK – our Queens. We still have a queen, so hopefully we’ll be able to jump on the back of those developments. Grab onto the tassels of you guys walking around. But thank you so much for your time, Amanda. It’s been great chatting. It’s been good to see you. It’s been a while, but all the best going forward.

Amanda: Thanks Henry, and glad to see you and hopefully your audience all staying well. Thanks very much.

Henry: And thank you to everyone who listened. If you’re watching this on YouTube, then please leave a like and subscribe to see more content like this. And if you’re listening to this on apple podcasts, then please leave a review letting us know what you think because that really does help us out. All right, thanks very much, everyone. Thanks Amanda. Until next time.