It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand

There are a couple of “beginner’s mistakes” when thinking about Free Software in general and its commercial application, in particular. One is to believe there was a substantial difference in the software referred to by the terms “Free Software” and “Open Source.” There isn’t. As far as the actual software is concerned, both terms are as synonymous as things get in real life, with experts debating about details around the fringes. The differences between the terms lie in framing and brand.

From the perspective of brand management, Open Source is a failed re-branding effort over which its creators lost control, followed by brand degradation through abuse and over-extension into areas such as business and development models. This has become another beginner’s mistake in Free Software, as highlighted in “What makes a Free Software company?”.

In a recent article, Jeroen van Meeuwen raised the point of brand awareness, and the fact that a brand can never be strictly controlled or managed, because it ultimately refers to “anyone’s gut feeling” about something. But this does not mean that branding issues should be ignored, because it is possible to influence anyone’s gut feeling, as some corporations have demonstrated over the years. But there is no brand manager for Free Software, and there is no communication discipline on issues of brand among the many people, projects, organisations, companies and governmental bodies that make up the Free Software ecosystem.

This is the strategic weakness that companies like Microsoft and SAP are seeking to exploit when they do their own shaping of what anyone’s gut feeling about the terms “Open Source” and “Free Software” might be. Unsurprisingly, their idea of what people’s gut feeling should be revolves around dominance of “mixed models” of proprietary and Free Software. Besides noteworthy write-ups on the Free Software Economy, Carlo Daffara also published some good evidence on why the mixed models are not among the most important and on the decline. So there is very little data to back up the spin provided by SAP, in particular, but there is a very clear motivation. If it becomes anyone’s gut feeling that mixed models are indeed the norm, it would allow them to leverage the strategic benefits of Free Software for themselves, while withholding them from their customers in order to extract monopoly rent on their own products.

Another approach by which companies such as SAP and Microsoft seek to steer the brand is by escalating, aggravating and encouraging conflict between false enemies, and by seeking to harmonize the wider community with false friends.

False Enemies and False Friends

There are plenty of false enemies to go around. Ironically, the most common form of false enemy is found around the animosity that has built around branding and framing issues, more specifically in the area of “Free Software” vs “Open Source.” Name-calling and quarrelling on either side is not helpful, and serves to hide the common base and interest in having a strong brand and powerful message.

The historical facts around Free Software are well documented and available to anyone who wishes to look them up. But instead of focussing on past insults and wrongs, I believe our focus should be on the future. We should realise that what divides us pales in comparison to what we have in common and that division and exclusion are harmful to us all. So we should rein in the name-callers on either side, and empower those people who know how to build cooperation, corporations, and positive feedback loops.

The second form of false enemies use Free Software according to the parameters defined by the license chosen for a certain project, but do not contribute back. These companies make use of the freedoms that were explicitly granted, but often find themselves heavily criticised for falling into the gap between unwritten community rules and explicit legal regimes. This criticism conveys a rather unhelpful lesson: Use of Free Software gives rise to public criticism and risks the company’s public profile.

This is not the message the Free Software community should want to send. Active citizenship is an asset, and should be encouraged. But as long as companies meet their legal obligations, they should be at liberty to be hermits. Not only is it impossible to enforce willing pro-active participation, through public criticism and stigma public perception of these companies overlaps with those who break the explicit legal rules. This discourages legal discipline and weakens the brand by confusing “anyone’s gut feeling.”

The alternative is to welcome any party taking measures to be a good citizen and follow the explicit legal rules, and grant them liberty to choose their own path. The value of active participation and contribution has to be taught, not forced upon. Once such companies understand the strategic implications of forsaking the opportunity to co-shape the direction of the platform one’s business depends upon to competitors, it is likely that more active citizenship will follow as the logical consequence.

The Free Software community needs to allow for a learning curve, and distinguish between good citizens – be they active or not – and false friends, which seek to maximise their own benefit at the expense of others. There are two typical strategies these companies employ: license abuse and brand abuse.

License abuse is most often related to non-compliance with the GNU General Public License (GPL), as the GPL is not only the most popular Free Software license overall, it is also the flagship license of the Copyleft principle and used for the vast majority of the GNU/Linux system. Free Software licenses are based on copyright, so violation of these licenses can and is being prosecuted by groups such as, FSFE’s Freedom Task Force, the FSF’s GPL Compliance Lab and the SFLC. Groups such as the KDE e.V. are building their own legal infrastructure and consolidate their copyright also because this will enable them to more effectively curb license abuse in the future.

So license abuse is increasingly well covered, and there is public material available, such as FSFE’s guide to reporting and fixing license violations, the FSF’s GNU GPL FAQ, or the SFLC’s Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free Software Projects. The room for license abuse is shrinking dramatically, and while genuine mistakes still happen and are typically fixed through cooperative structural remedies by FSFE‘s FTF and others, repeated mistakes are unlikely to meet unlimited patience, as the lawsuits of the past years have demonstrated.

Brand abuse is more subtle in comparison. At times accompanied by license abuse, the typical brand abuse takes the form of companies marketing their proprietary products as “Open Source.” The vector for this abuse is “anyone’s gut feeling” that Open Source translates to “visible source code.” This criterion is insufficient to meet the guidelines set by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for what constitutes Open Source, but seems to dominate a significant part of the brand at the moment.

There is also brand abuse taking place for “Free Software”, but this abuse seems less profitable and thus less prevalent, as it plays on the mistaken gut feeling that Free Software is defined by zero price, although the definition by the FSF highlights the four freedoms as the defining set of criteria and the Debian Free Software Guidelines describe what was later used as the definition for the term Open Source.

Even if it weren’t for the common root of all definitions, combination of terms such as “FOSS” and “FLOSS” has firmly tied both brands together in public perception. Gut feeling about one has bearing on the other, people make the assumption that Open Source is always gratis, and that Free Software means that the source code is visible. So brand abuse and degradation is an issue that affects the entire Free Software ecosystem, regardless of preferred branding and framing.

That brand degradation is harmful for all companies and commercial endeavours in Free Software, as it weakens the ability to communicate an essential part of the unique sales proposition. This was also the guiding reason for FSFE‘s “We speak about Free Software” initiative and has been thematised in Mark Taylor’s article “What vendors really mean by ‘open source’”.

Since brand is about public perception, the only remedy is through public communication to re-focus the brand. This would necessarily include elements such as information about the true meaning of the brand, criticism of brand abuse by the entire community – commercial and non-commercial entities alike – and exclusion of brand abusive companies from formal or informal cooperation to avoid legitimising their redefinition of the common brand.

Control over a brand can never be absolute simply because one voice, no matter how powerful, will never be able to drown out the many individual voices of all the people whose gut feeling defines the brand. There may be an advantage in a single message for a single brand, as it is typically handled by any particular corporate entity for its own products and name. But when it comes to public perception, there may also be an advantage to a community of millions that has a common interest to keep its brand strong.

While the message of brand abusing companies often seems to align very well with the community, they live at its expense, putting actual Free Software companies at a competitive disadvantage. It is time this community of people, companies, organisations and governmental bodies understood the relevance of keeping its brand strong to empower itself and its own.

Because shaping anyone’s gut feeling ultimately is in anyone’s power, yours included.

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About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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19 Responses to It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand

  1. Jack Griffin says:

    What a clear-headed article. OSS-FOSS-FLOSS, Free, yada yada yada. While the dogmatists debate the filioque clause or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the main message is almost completely lost on the marketplace of customers who pay for value related to software. One way to segment the market: people who use “peer regard” as a medium of exchange (like all of us who contribute to OSS-FOSS-FLOSS-Free project) and those who use money. The latter aren’t concerned with discussions of dogma and are being “fooled” by those who use “open source” as the marketing term du jour. Think of all the products in grocery story labeled, “Organic”, “Bio”, “Lite”…

    A suggestion: We don’t need to agree on definitions of what is open / free / yada-yada. All we have to do is say “XYZ says they are Open Source and they are not.” Then repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. We don’t even need to say “and they are devious / dishonest”. That will be understood.

    Brazen marketing message follows: Bacula Systems provides subscriptions, consulting and training for Bacula. Bacula Enterprise Edition is GPLv2, the source code is available, and the “community” edition – Bacula – is the development branch that has *more* features than the “enterprise” edition. We say we are “open source” and we are. Bacula Enterprise Edition is the only open source enterprise backup & recovery software.

  2. Stephen Smoogen says:

    This is a comment I left at LWN, but probably should have gone here… I like your blog but have had problems with “Open Source” versus “Free Software” since the ‘OSI’ started up.

    “Open Source” is the term I find people using when talking about source code they can muck with.

    “Free Software” almost always comes up as shareware. I get this from the people under 25 and the people over 25. To most people the brand “Free Software” is Itunes, Microsoft Explorer, etc.. stuff that was “Free” as in Beer.. not Free as in Freedom. The only people I find who ‘know’ what Free Software means are those who are already deep in it.

    Personally I understand the difference between Open Source and Free Software and prefer the Freedoms speech.. but I have been in it for a long time.. When trying to talk about it I get over and over “Oh you mean Open Source” or the “Why are you using Free like that?” Some people get it but its more like the conversion to a mystery cult than a brand name usage. It makes the words “Free Software” a secret word so that people who know what it means know they are with their “brotherhood”. This kind of usage limits its mass appeal for two reasons: 1) People in the brotherhood begin to prefer knowing they have an ‘elite’ status, and 2) people outside are the type to be turned off by such ‘cults’.

    Long term I don’t know what the right thing to do here is. I wish I did.. but Humans are Complicated as says.

  3. YetAnotherBob says:

    Open Source is a much abused term. Free is too much misunderstood. Perosnally, I like what the French did. It’s not Gratis software (well, it is, but that’s not what is important) it’s Software Libre (or Liberty Software) we should standardize on that. I do like the use of the Debian Free Software Guidelines for OSI. It’s too bad they let the use of that get so watered down. Pick a few licenses, and let folks use them. BSD, GPL2, GPL3, Artistic. All the others are just minor variations on these, or they are not Liberty Licenses.

  4. Jacques Merde says:

    “Software Libre”. I like the lack of ambiguity. But there are connotations. I can see it now: “I liberate this software in the name of the Revolution. Viva la Revolution!!”. Sometimes it seems there is no winning.



    PS: Nice article.

  5. Stenley says:

    One of the programs, who sais about itself itz would be OpenSource is GNU-Plot.
    But GNUplot is neither GNU nor OpenSource.

    GNUplot only allow to publish patches. A complete full sourcecode of GNUplot, which is modified, is not allowed to publish. Also not, to publish a created binary of that.

    Here the license:

    The interesting part of the license is:
    “Permission to modify the software is granted, but not the right to distribute the complete modified source code. Modifications are to be distributed as patches to the released version.”

    This is not an OpenSource-License. But I have heard, that it is nevertheless part of the Debian-main-tree.

  6. blackhole says:

    Personally I understand the difference between Open Source and Free Software and prefer the Freedoms speech.. but I have been in it for a long time.. When trying to talk about it I get over and over “Oh you mean Open Source” or the “Why are you using Free like that?”

    I have moved from the position of usually using the term “open source” to finding it repugnant. But I usually resist any urge to lecture about it. Rather, I simply use the term “free software” myself. Or sometimes the term “FOSS” or “FLOSS.” If speaking to somebody who may not know what free software means I will briefly explain that the reference is to freedom, not price. If I am writing it where I think it may be misunderstood, I will usually write “free(dom) software” or “free (libre) software.”

    So far I have been too shy to use the term “freedomware.” Yet some day I may use the term “shackleware” for non-free software. :-)

  7. Wiz21 says:

    The historical facts around Free Software are well documented and available to anyone who wishes to look them up. But instead of focussing on past insults and wrongs, I believe our focus should be on the future. We should realise that what divides us pales in comparison to what we have in common and that division and exclusion are harmful to us all. So we should rein in the name-callers on either side, and empower those people who know how to build cooperation, corporations, and positive feedback loops.

    That’s on the edge of interpretation. Talking about the “future” here is a bit funny. I mean, the GPL is built around two things. First defining what “freedom” is when applied to software and second, protecting that freedom. The latter is done for the very reason that we must keep this freedom available in the /future/. The GPL with its viral effect is a system building a very nice, growing fence all around us in the future so that our playgfround remains as free as we want it. Thereofre, saying that one has to forget the quarrels and, at the same time, one has to look in the future is incompatible, for it is the very difference between OSS and free sowftare is.

    As for branding and framing, you do have a point. People’s gut feeling is pretty different of our quarrels. But at the same time, my experience is that people’s gut feeling is pretty limited. That is, people understand the convenience of OSS but don’t get the point of free software, which is much more abstract and fututre-minded (basically they understand that they get the source code and all the advantages brought with it but they don’t see the point in preserving those). So to me OSS and freeSoft should never ever be put under the same umbrella, especially if we’re talking about branding. If branding is unique for both of them, then we’ll loose a contrast that makes free software easier to explain, and hopefully, to understand.

    However, as you say, quarelling is definitely not the point. Advancing the OSS agenda at some point may be a benefit for freesoftware in the future. No problem with that. I won’t explain anything new to you by saying that free software is about politics and that, in their very essence, politics are a question of compromise.


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  9. triad says:

    “People make the assumption [...] that Free Software means that the source code is visible.”

    …yes? Why shouldn’t they?

    From the Four Freedoms:

    “Freedom 1: The freedom to study and modify the program.”

    Show me an example of Free Software where the source code isn’t available. Then show me how it complies with Freedom 1.

    Free Software => source code is visible (but note that the converse isn’t true).

  10. greve says:


    The point is that visibility of source code, which by the way does not mean you have the freedom to study, as highlighted by Copyright tainting from studying proprietary software, isn’t sufficient for software to be Free Software.

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  12. Theo Schmidt says:

    Super analysis, but what is the solution? I have started using the term “public software” (or “öffentliche Software” in German). I wonder if that helps or just confuses more.

  13. Peter Lewis says:

    Great article Georg.

    One thing that is small, but would make an immediate impact IMO is a standardised sort of badge which could be attached to free software (on the website of a project, for example). I know there were some created for the GPL3, but I’m thinking something more general.

    Plus, I’ve just been searching for “badge” and “logo” with various combinations of “fsf”, “fsfe”, “gnu”, “free software” etc. and there’s not a lot out there. Something straight off the front page of or would be good, a bit like the “Get Firefox” things.


  14. casus telefon says:

    I thin you are right in this section…Plus, I’ve just been searching for “badge” and “logo” with various combinations of “fsf”, “fsfe”, “gnu”, “free software” etc. and there’s not a lot out there. Something straight off the front page of or would be good, a bit like the “Get Firefox” things.


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  16. Phil says:

    How does Novell fit into this? Are they a “false enemy” or a “false friend”? There are some vocal “free software advocates” that decry Novell as the enemy but obvious the Novell folks claim to be our friends. I’ve seen both sides and I’m leaning toward them being a “false enemy” but I’d like to know what the FSFE thinks (and why).


  17. greve says:

    I can no longer speak for FSFE.

    But personally I would be wary of the role Novell has been playing in pushing Microsoft’s technology into GNOME and and their role in promoting Microsoft’s business and political interests, e.g. giving credibility to the patent threats, or their representation of Microsoft’s interests in the OOXML standardisation.

  18. Val Smith says:

    All big corporations are going to have their own agenda and it’s not hard to discover – it’s making money. Whilst not wishing to deal in platitudes like there not beinng any free lunches, it is difficult to believe Novell, MS et al wouldn’t want a pound of flesh somewhere down the line. As far as terminology goes, this seems a spurious debate to me except that most non-techie people instantly understand what “free software” means but I still find myself always having to explain the meaning of the term “open source”.

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