Truth In Labelling

When I wrote about Organic Software recently, I was largely eulogising the community dimension of open source software. But there's another way in which the idea of "organic software" is helpful to understanding the dynamic in free and open source software. Here are the comments I have been making at Open World Forum here in Paris.


Reading Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma gives an insight into the real vision of the community behind the term "organic" as applied to food. Pollan describes spending what were clearly a few life-changing weeks at a New England farm that "farms grass". They feed the grass to cows for dairy and for meat. They fertilise the grass with chickens, which give eggs and meat and themselves clear the waste left by the cows. They have a complete cycle of production, working the land and returning it to richness and fertility rather than treating it as a "natural resource", exploiting it for monoculture and relying on petro-chemicals to keep it going. This sustained cycle of richness was the original vision behind "organic" - a rebellion against industrial food, yes, but a positive rebellion leading to skilled people with quality lifestyles farming sustainably and leaving the land better than they found it while producing wholesome and natural food. They treat the farm like an organism - which was in fact the origin of the term.


"Organic", of course, is just a brand. Brands ought to be good things - attention-markers that classify their bearer in the group of things we trust. The appropriation of the term drives my scientifically-trained friends nuts, because they (like me) were taught to understand the word as a classification for carbon chemistry. But it's a strong brand that people seek out, and that strength has itself led to a problem.

Seeing that "organic food" rang bells for consumers, the food industry wanted to use the term to label their products. There's a problem, though. The food industry has optimised their supply chains by driving monocultures in different regions, driving down prices by commoditisation. They further exploit government subsidy for things like maize and petroleum by-products to drive up yield as the monocultures use them to increase crop volumes - at the expense of the land. All the exact opposite of the vision that led to "organic", in other words.

But people were willing to compromise in order to achieve a little good - "surely it's better to have something than nothing?". The food industry managed to get "organic" defined not holistically but in terms of "inputs" - the things needed to drive the monocultures. Rather than changing their production and economic systems, they simply switched to techniques so that the monocultures could come to harvest without artificial chemicals. The rest of the context? All the same. So today, most people think of "organic" as just meaning the absence of artificial additives and fertilisers in the ingredients in the foods we buy.

But "organic" means far more than just "inputs". It actually describes a whole approach to food, embracing the lifestyle of the producer, the lifestyle of the customer and the relationship between the two. It implies "slow food, "local food", animal welfare, local diversity, sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and more. Reducing it down just to the "inputs" misses the core values of "organic" and leads people to false conclusions (like the recent UK agency report denouncing organic food as no more nutritious than processed food). Inputs and nutrition are the currency of industrial food, where supposed health claims are the benchmark for marketing something unpalatable by ignoring the stuff that would make you run away (something that happens in the property market too). Hearing "organic" measured by them is a sure sign that the speaker has co-opted the brand rather than embraced the lifestyle and values.

Organic Software

Fruit stand in São Paulo

Which leads me to "organic software" again. An open source project is what happens when people gather round a free software commons to synchronise a fragment of their interests alongside others doing the same. To succeed, it depends on a mesh of factors, not just on the way the copyright is licensed (although that's important of course). Ultimately to proponents of open source communities and of free software, it's not just about ... well, it's not just about any one attribute. What's happened to software freedom when it was branded as open source seems to me analogous to what has happened to holistic agriculture when it was branded as organic. A valuable brand was indeed created - companies wouldn't want to use it otherwise.

The various discussions about the state of open source here at Open World Forum in Paris seem to me to often miss the heart of the issue for the software marketplace. The reason open source has made such a huge impact is that it delivers software freedoms to software users. Software freedom is the key, and a company with a focus on open source will do business by delivering value through software freedom. There's no one way to do it - every business will have a different model. But any company wanting to affiliate with the open source and free software movement needs to be graded on their impact on software freedom.

Software Freedom Means Business Success

A focus on software freedom isn't just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom:

  • The freedom to use the software for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees). This is what drives the trend to adoption-led deployment;
  • the availability of skills and suppliers because they have had no barriers to studying the source code and experimenting with it;
  • the assurance that vendors can't withhold the software from you because anyone has the freedom to modify and re-use the source code;
  • the freedom to pass the software on to anyone that needs it, even including your own enhancements - including your staff, suppliers, customers and (in the case of governments) citizens.
When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, because their budgets and success depend on it.

Truth In Advertising

That's about more than just licensing. It also includes factors such as diversity of copyright ownership, representative leadership, use of open standards, patent safety, control of trademarks, openness of governance and more. While measuring such "inputs" can never wholly identify the holistic concept which is software freedom, I am still convinced the next step for open source is to devise "open source definitions" for these other key attributes, so that we can get away from an undefined and loose understanding of an open source business and instead have a more nuanced approach.

What I would like to see is a move by OSI to create a suite of "open source definitions" against which a business could grade itself, and then indicate how many "stars" they score against the full suite. There would be very, very few businesses able to score a full set of stars, but the transparency of being able to see how companies rate in cultivating (rather just exploiting) software freedom would benefit us all in creating a strong, open market. We could set benchmarks in our procurement guidelines, requiring "no less than a five-star rating on the open source benchmark", just as we require ISO9001 and similar ratings. OSI as an organisation is ready for this evolution of its role. Who wants to help make it happen? It's time.

[Also posted to my OSI Board Blog]


Good post Simon. As I said yesterday I agree with much of what you have to say and believe that now is the right time for these definitions. The sooner the better so we can get beyond semantic arguments. As I previously told Andrew Oliver, if 451 CAOS Theory can help in any way, we would be glad to get involved.

Posted by Matt Aslett on October 01, 2009 at 05:49 PM PDT #

Nice post, Simon. As so often, your remarks are intensely thought-provoking. And this is the tip of an immense iceberg: the proliferation of free software is an existence proof that human beings can exchange - even give away - extremely valuable stuff without demanding any payment. That is the diametrical opposite of Karl Marx's "soulless cash nexus", the mechanism whereby in capitalist society all relationships tend to be transformed into payments ("monetized" in today's commercial jargon).

I am far from being a Marxist, in even the most theoretical way, but such a clever man could hardly avoid hitting a few nails plumb on the head. The theory of free-market capitalism seems to insist that everything has a monetary value - remember the two policewomen who were deemed to be breaking the law because, by babysitting each other's children, they were theoretically exchanging payments? That's quite insane, but once you start levying taxes on every useful activity, and trying to plug leaks in the resulting tax system, that's where you end up.

Many of us are amazed that, in the often-vaunted 21st century, we are not all enjoying a life where the biggest problem is what to do in our copious leisure time. And why not? Because no matter how much wealth there is, some people persist in annexing it to themselves, and the weakest (or, rather, those with the least affinity for cash) go to the wall. Why is life apparently getting worse for so many, instead of better for everyone? The cash nexus seems to be part of the answer.

After all, our whole technical civilization depends on science, and the practical advance of science depends on free publication and peer review (in whatever form). Surely it's not too far out to suggest that we might begin sharing a few other valuable intangibles, such as software?

Have you read Charlie Stross' book "Accelerando"? It's an SF novel, but bursting with ideas. Your post made me think of how the protagonist of "Accelerando" enjoys a fine lifestyle (which could be luxurious if he wanted) without actually possessing any money. He drives the authorities mad by living through informal barter. When he has a good idea (often) he gives it away, and others give him services such as free board and lodging, clothing, transport, computers, etc. There is never any kind of contract, though: he gives and receives freely, and can thus claim quite truthfully that he has no income and no outgoings. In short, he lives a free life and he is a free man.

Posted by Tom Welsh on October 01, 2009 at 09:24 PM PDT #


First, thank you for discussing software freedom here and on the OSI blog.

The idea of a grading system that describes how well a software vendor respects the software freedom of the users of its software is an interesting one. Potentially, it seems to me, a very smart move. It acknowledges the truth that many firms are not quite "there" yet, but it also helps to set goals for firms that are interested and helps to give a reward to firms that make progress.

I have some suggestions and concerns:

One suggestion is that you have not given thorough account of the risks of losing software freedom. To be sure, the economic advantages of living in software freedom, or running a corporation in software freedom are substantial. I think it also bears mentioning, however, that the absence of software freedom is a threat both to individual liberty (e.g., by unaware subjection to surveillance) and to community (i.e. the force of the state's enforcement capabilities and inclinations vs. the Golden Rule as pertains to sharing).

One concern I have - that you seem to share but that needs more exploration - is the OSD (Open Source Definition). It is my understanding that when Bruce Perens first wrote that document, he was describing the licensing rules that ought to apply to Debian, which aspired to be a free software complete OS. As such, the OSD describes licenses which \*can be used\* in a free softwae distribution but fails to describe what licenses \*ought to be used\*. This is the critical difference between the OSI and the FSF. The former has, in the past, been quite comfortable with such things as dual licensing (proprietary and "open") and tiered products (the best features held back under proprietary licenses). If OSI is to change here, I think it will have to change its historic stance.

Another concern that I have is, alas, the legal status of the OSI. You remark that "OSI is as an organization is ready for this evolution of this role". To the extent that you mean OSI principle players are ready to begin talking about software freedom, I guess that's good news. Yet the OSI itself is in bad legal standing. It's status as a California corporation is "suspended". It's legal rights to operate are quite limited. This appears to have been the case for some time. The OSI itself has not been direct and honest with the community by disclosing this fact or revealing their plan for correcting the situation. Indeed, the OSI web site still advertises OSI as a California corporation and solicits donations.

How is this betrayal of the public trust and suspension of most corporate activity consistent with being "ready for this next step in evolution"?

My final concern is this: if the OSI is, let's presume, "resurrected" as a corporation in good standing, and if the OSI is now to become serious about software freedom, then should the OSI not, at the very least, apologize for its past hostility to the FSF and offer to form a meaningful alliance with the free software movement?

If we're to start giving out stars and grading corporations on their dedication to software freedom, I think we can start with the OSI. I think the way to start might very well be for OSI to extend an apologetic and friendly hand towards the FSF. I think the FSF could be a great friend. (The final scene of Casablanca comes to mind.)


Posted by Thomas Lord on October 02, 2009 at 06:01 AM PDT #

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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