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<html newsdate="2009-06-04">
<title>It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand</title>
<h1>It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand</h1>
<p>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.” <a
href="/freesoftware/freesoftware.html">There isn’t</a>. 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 <a
and <a href="">brand</a>.</p>
<p>From the perspective of brand management, Open Source is a failed re-branding
effort over which <a href="">its creators lost control</a>, 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 “<a href="/news/2008/news-20081202-02.html">What makes a Free Software company?</a>”. </p>
<p>In <a href="">a recent article</a>, <a href="">Jeroen van Meeuwen</a> raised the point of brand awareness, and
the fact that a brand can never be strictly controlled or managed, because it
ultimately refers to “<a href="">anyone’s gut feeling</a>” 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. </p>
<p>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 <a href="">the Free
Software Economy</a>, Carlo Daffara also published some <a href="">good evidence</a> 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.</p>
<p >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.</p>
<h2>False Enemies and False Friends</h2>
<p>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
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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 <a href="">hermits</a>. 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.”</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>License abuse is most often related to non-compliance with the <a href="">GNU General
Public License (GPL)</a>, 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, <a href="/activities/ftf/">FSFE’s Freedom Task Force</a>, the FSF’s GPL
Compliance Lab and the SFLC. Groups such as the <a href="">KDE e.V.</a> are building their own
legal infrastructure and <a href="">consolidate their copyright</a> also because this will
enable them to more effectively curb license abuse in the future.</p>
<p>So license abuse is increasingly well covered, and there is public material
available, such as <a href="/activities/ftf/reporting-fixing-violations.html">FSFE’s guide to reporting and fixing license violations</a>, the
<a href="">FSF’s GNU GPL FAQ</a>, or the <a href="">SFLC</a>’s <a href="">Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free
Software Projects</a>. The room for license abuse is shrinking dramatically, and
while genuine mistakes still happen and are typically fixed through cooperative
structural remedies by <a href="/activities/ftf/">FSFE's FTF</a> and others, repeated mistakes are unlikely to
meet unlimited patience, as the lawsuits of the past years have demonstrated.</p>
<p>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 <a href="">guidelines</a> set by the <a href="">Open Source Initiative (OSI)</a> for
what constitutes Open Source, but seems to dominate a significant part of the
brand at the moment.</p>
<p>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 <a href="">definition by the FSF</a>
highlights the four freedoms as the defining set of criteria and the <a href="">Debian Free
Software Guidelines</a> describe what was later used as the definition for the term
Open Source.</p>
<p>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
<p>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 “<a href="/activities/whyfs/whyfs.html">We speak
about Free Software</a>” initiative and has been thematised in Mark Taylor’s article
<a href=",1000002985,39578370,00.htm">What vendors really mean by ‘open source’</a>”.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>Because shaping anyone’s gut feeling ultimately is in anyone’s power, yours
<tag key="front-page"/>
<tag key="competition">Competition</tag>
<tag key="enterprise">Enterprise</tag>
<author id="greve" />