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

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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 gpl-violations.org, 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.