What the OSD doesn’t say about open source

Tarus Balog of OpenNMS wrote an interesting post today on the similarities between the four freedoms of Free Software and the Open Source Definition, essentially making the point that “open source software is also free software”.

I would agree with Tarus’s assessment about the way in which the four freedoms and the OSD overlap (in fact I will be using the four freedoms to explain the difference between open source and proprietary software next week) but I cannot agree with his suggestion that vendors with hybrid licensing models (or “fauxpen source” vendors as he puts it) should not be able to call themselves “open source vendors”.

We have covered this ground before, but a debate ensued on Twitter that outgrew 140 characters. Hence this quick post.

Tarus has included a syllogism to explain his reasoning:

    Open source is free software.
    Commercially licensed software is not free.
    Therefore, if your business (main revenue source) is selling commercial software, you are not open source.

I can understand the reasoning that companies like JasperSoft or GroundWork that rely on commercially-licensed editions of their software to generate their revenue should not be able to declare that software “open source”. Clearly it is not.

But those vendors also produce and support open source (free) editions of their software, so therefore they can claim to be open source vendors.

The OSD refers to the software, not the vendor or the business strategy, so while the OSD can be used to determine whether a software product is open source, it cannot be used to determine whether a business strategy is that of an “open source vendor”.

As I previously noted, “given there is no official definition for what makes a company (as opposed to a product) ‘open source’ that is a matter of personal opinion.”

Even if the OSI did want to police the use of open source in such a manner, it would be impossible without an enforceable trademark for the term “open source”, which would appear to be unlikely.

My problem with Tarus’s argument then is not that it is flawed – I think he makes a valid case – but that he is trying to use a screwdriver to crack a nut. It could be done in theory, but it’s not exactly practical. Even if you accept that the industry needs an open source definition for business and development models, the OSD is not that definition.

Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be the basis for one.

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#1 Tarus on 05.07.09 at 9:59 am

How about an analogy with food labeled “organic”? While all of the food I consume, with the possible exception of the salt I put on it, is “organic” as in contains hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, there is an accepted definition for food labeled as “organic” (analogy borrowed from Jeff Gehlbach).

Now, while the Food and Drug Administration is allowed to police the use of the term “organic”, there isn’t anything similar for “open source” but the community itself. My point is that by allowing commercial software companies to call themselves “open source companies” is misleading, just as if I called a Big Mac “organic” food.

It’s tied to the main source of revenue – if you make most of your revenue from things other than selling commercial software, such as Red Hat, then you are open source. If your main source of revenue is from non-open, non-free commercial software licenses, it makes no sense to call yourself an open source company unless you just want the marketing bounce – very similar to oil and gas companies calling themselves “green”.

The number one seller of organic food in the US is Wal-mart, but I doubt my local co-op would like Wal-mart to be thought of as an “organic” or “green” grocery. It is just a plain ol’ grocery.

In much the same way, you claim that commercial software companies that produce some open source code need special name. They have one – commercial software companies.

Open source companies (be they commercial open source, professional open source or “other”) need to remain true to the definition, which means deriving most of their revenue from activities that aren’t in conflict with the creation and distribution of open and free software.

#2 Matthew Aslett on 05.07.09 at 10:33 am

I understand the logic, I just don’t think the OSD is fit for the purpose you want to use it for.

Incidentally, I wrote a very long post that predicted the current debate and made the comparison with the green movement, over a year ago:

#3 Matt Asay on 05.07.09 at 10:18 am

That reasoning is flawed, Tarus, if you use Red Hat as an example. Red Hat does *not* make its money directly from open source. It makes its revenue on a closed binary version of Linux. Red Hat doesn’t sell support for CentOS or SUSE or anything else besides RHEL, which comes under a more restricted contract than the GPL. This was originally called out by r0ml at OSCON years ago. I’m sorry you missed that.

It’s unclear to me why you (apparently) fear having companies that produce far more open source code than you do, call themselves open source companies. You seem to want “open source” to be your own private cottage industry. It’s not. It’s a much bigger tent than you seem willing to allow it to be.

Fortunately, you’re not in charge, and your taxonomy is both inaccurate and somewhat pointless. No one cares about this except the vendors involved. Customers don’t care. It’s therefore unclear to me why we should spend so much time seeing how many open-source angels can fit on the head of a pin.

#4 James Dixon on 05.07.09 at 10:40 am

Hi Tarus,

I respect your passion and your principles but I disagree with your underlying issues.

Read part II of the Beekeeper. You will see that the operation and structure of a commercial open source company (even a open-core one) is fundamentally different from a proprietary company. Whether or not the productization process adds additional features is almost inconsequential from an operational viewpoint (but not a philosophical one). We need to be able to distinguish this model and process from proprietary ones.

This argument is all about terminology and business models that are still in flux. Who knows what terms will be the commonly accepted ones when this all settles down in 10 years time. That is not my main issue here.

My main issue with your stance is this… Commercial open source companies are being created to disrupt software markets where proprietary vendors rule the world. These commercial open source vendors are making huge contributions of code into open source, in some cases where there were no open source offerings at all. Commercial open source companies, by competing in the open market with the proprietary companies, are fighting them on their terms – and winning. Commercial open source companies are also educating the analysts, markets, and mainstream market about open source. Commercial open source companies are creating a drift in the market towards open source consumption and open source production. The ‘enemy’ of commercial open source companies is proprietary software. The ‘enemy’ of the open source purists is proprietary software. There is a common enemy, conventional wisdom says these groups should be friends – but I’m not hearing that from the purists.

What is better – a future where all new code is proprietary, or a world where 80-90% of it is open source? If you are fighting for a future where 100% of all new code is open source I think you are going to be disappointed. I can see a future where the commercial open source model becomes accepted as a good balance between an open source development model and a sustainable business model. I cannot see a future any time soon where all new code is open source – not unless the financial needs of all software company employees are taken care of by someone else, maybe a huge foundation or a communist government?

You are entitled to not like the terminology, no matter what is used, someone will object. But I think there are much bigger issues at stake.


#5 Tarus on 05.07.09 at 10:44 am


Matt – if you were following the twitter stream today you’d see that there are those of us who do care about the term “open source” and your Bill O’Reilly-esque claims that this is all been settled years ago by you and your little group is a bit tiring. You are not in charge either, but the difference is that I never claimed to be.

I can buy support and services for RHEL, including binaries, as well as JBoss and other products that Red Hat makes. In all cases I get the code. Heck, I can even just use CentOS and support it myself, since Red Hat is an open source company and almost none of the software it produces is in conflict with the OSD, thus allowing for forks and copies. Red Hat bases its business on making open source easier to use, and while the binaries Red Hat produces are governed by contract law and not copyright, the code is provided right along side so that anyone can modify it.

This is different with fauxpen source companies. I don’t get the right to freely distribute the code or in many cases even see it. I usually don’t get the right to modify it, and I definitely don’t get the right to distribute derivative works. Their goal is to increase their commercial software revenues, in much the same way that shareware works. In the end you are still stuck with closed source software.

Your own company, Alfresco, up until recently, was a fine example of an open source company. All of the source was available, and it appeared that you made money by packaging it and making it easier to use. But after posting a press release stating record revenues earlier this year, it looks like Alfresco has decided to move down the fauxpen source route by creating closed-source add-ons. The message is a little mixed – you have record revenues but for some reason those aren’t good enough, so you’ve decided to change the rules.

As a consumer, I’d be wary of what other rules you’ll need to change in the future.

You say that “Customers don’t care”. This is not my experience, although it doesn’t surprise me that it might have been yours. Companies that truly *get* open source will have a huge advantage over their competitors in the future, especially if we in the open source community can educate them on the differences between open and free software, and the commercial/open core/neo-proprietary alternatives.

If no one cares about the term “open source” then why don’t you stop using it? If people do care, then we owe it to them to define it properly.

#6 Tarus on 05.07.09 at 10:56 am

James –

I am in no way saying that having more source code available under OSI-approved “open” licenses is a bad thing. But you seem to miss the point that “open source” is not just about access to the source. It is also about freedom.

In the open core business model, sure, open source code is created. But that creation is controlled within a small, closed group of people. If your business model is based on selling commercial software licenses, then, no matter how good the intentions were in the beginning, at some point decisions will be made that will sacrifice the benefits to the community for benefits to the bottom line.

You can’t tell me that your community wouldn’t benefit from the code for which you charge a fee.

Now I assume you would claim that this code could not be created without those fees, and you may be right. But the same thing can be said for commercial software companies. This is not true of my business. This is not true for Red Hat, which despite CentOS and despite Oracle, is thriving.

Open source is not just about the source code, and that was the point of my post. Open source is also about freedom, and is, in fact, free software. While under a benevolent dictatorship the trains can run on time, it is still a dictatorship.

#7 James Dixon on 05.07.09 at 12:04 pm

Good points Tarus.

You need to remember that most open source projects are run by benevolent dictators – especially the smallest ones 😉

I can tell you that our community would not benefit from our for-fee code – in the long term. If making that code available makes us non-profitable in the long term, all of our developers (who create most of the code our community uses) will have to find other jobs, and the code-base will move forward at a glacial pace compared to the current situation. That will not benefit the community. Our community has somehow managed to create tens of thousands of running installations without that for-fee code. They benefit much more directly from the full-time contributors that they would from the for-fee code pays for them. In our case you are arguing on behalf of a community that is engaged, productive, and happy.

Your are missing the point of the Beekeeper model. By having a customer base and a community, a commercial open source company is able to meet the needs of both, much better than the proprietary or pure open source model could do alone. In order to execute the model you have to balance the needs of both groups of people. Yes I agree that in some cases a single decision, when taken in isolation, might seem to limit a benefit to the community. But when you take the larger picture, that same decision, actually provides a far greater benefit to the community in the long term.

I agree that open source software is about freedoms. As Matt stated above our open source software comes with all of those freedoms.

I think it is great that Red Hat and you are able to do what you do with your model. However in our market, we would not have been able to do what we have done with that model.

Your basic opinion, that we cannot call ourselves ‘commercial open source companies’, is a valid opinion. I completely reject the notion that we should call ourselves proprietary companies. By doing that you are, in my opinion, hurting the open source movement more than helping it. It is self-destructive. If you have a better idea (‘fauxpen source’ is inventive, but still insulting), I’d like to hear it.


#8 David Dennis on 05.07.09 at 12:38 pm

There seems to be an underlying accusation of ‘bait and switch’ or other nefarious tactics that doesn’t actually seem to be common practice among commercial open source vendors.

For example, GroundWork Monitor Community Edition is completely open source. It is free, in both meanings of the term. It is made available under GPL v2, as stated here:


Organizations for whom these qualities are of utmost importance can use it to their heart’s content, and modify it, too.

It is commercially supported, via per-incident support packs. GroundWork even offers a free support ticket to all Community Edition users.

The subscription-based Professional and Enterprise editions are hybrid-licensed and thus not completely open source.

GroundWork doesn’t hide this distinction between the product lines. And I don’t think most commercial open source vendors do, either.

Next question: What to do?

If staying Open Source Kosher is really important issue to many people (GroundWork’s experience is similar to Matt’s; this issue doesn’t come up very often, but there may be sample selection bias), do what the real rabbis do and set up an Open Source Kosher certification program and logo.

Rather than arguing amongst pundits and vendors about what terms should be used, just certify the products/projects. I suspect most commercial open source vendors will have a product line-up that includes products/projects that are Open Source Kosher certified and those that aren’t.

And then let the consumers choose, just like they can in the supermarket.

Give them ‘freedom’ as in ‘freedom of choice’.

#9 Matt Asay on 05.07.09 at 1:05 pm

If it’s any consolation, this silly debate has been going on for over a decade, first started by the free-software advocates who could not wrap their brains around this evil “open source” notion. Tarus is simply arguing the Richard Stallman point. Many of us are, instead, arguing for the broader “open source” point. It turns out that the open sourcerors have been winning even as the narrow “free or die!” crowd has been marginalized.

#10 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 4:45 pm

I think ultimately the point that’s being missed this time around is that we are not arguing that there is anything *wrong* with any of these business models, only that treating them all with the same phrase when there’s a wide range of openness is disingenuous.

“Open source” originally meant “free software without the emotionally-loaded word ‘free'” — now it’s being coopted to mean “well, you can get the source, but who knows how they treat actual user freedom.”

#11 Matthew Aslett on 05.07.09 at 3:08 pm

Thanks all for the great comments. The fact that the debate remains fascinating even a decade after it started proves what a difficult issue this is. David makes a good point that most – if not all – of the commercial open source vendors are using the term open source in good faith and are honest and open about what is open source and what is not. I would agree that those that are deliberately misleading would-be customers should be outed, but to tar everyone with the same brush is unfair and ultimately destructive.

I would also point out that there is a phrase that describes the vendors Tarus describes as pure open source: “free software vendor”. George Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, recently wrote a great post defining what it means to be a free software vendor: http://blogs.fsfe.org/greve/?p=260. I wondered at the time if we would see more people fly “the Free software flag, rather than attempting to wrestle ownership of the term “open source” from those with a penchant for proprietary licenses.” If Tarus was maintaining that only vendors that meet the CentOS test could be known as free software vendors, I don’t think many would disagree with him.

Whether you agree with it or not, there is an argument that the industry needs a definition of a pure free/open source business model (or whatever you want to call it). As I suggested above, and David reiterated, those that see the need for such a definition should create one. Customer demand would demonstrate whether it is really necessary or not.

#12 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 4:46 pm

Like I said in the other comment, the “free” in “free software vendor” has it’s own baggage, which was the reason for the coining the term “open source” in the first place. All this does is replace one incorrect set of assumptions for another. I guess it’s time for a 3rd phrase. 😉

#13 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 4:50 pm

To be more specific; I could care less about “be free or die!” — I’m an ideologue about *my* software but I don’t care to impose on others how they license theirs. Businesses are free (heh) to come up with their business plans however they want.

BUT: IMHO they’re misusing (and diluting) the phrase “open source” if they’re primarily making money from non-open-source software that just happens to be implemented on top of open-source software. That’s all our point is.

#14 David Dennis on 05.07.09 at 7:44 pm


You stated:

“BUT: IMHO they’re misusing (and diluting) the phrase “open source” if they’re primarily making money from non-open-source software that just happens to be implemented on top of open-source software.”

An interesting definition.

So if a vendor isn’t primarily making money from license sales, but only partially, would they be misusing the term open source?

If a vendor gets 40% of its revenue from license sales, and 60% from support and services, they’re not ‘primarily’ getting money from non-open-source software.

Such a revenue split certainly isn’t rare among commercial open source vendors, especially early stage ones.

#15 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 4:55 pm

(hm, weird, my comments ended up in the wrong place; I was responding to comments deeper in the thread, sorry if this is confusing)

#16 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 10:45 pm

At that point it’s splitting hairs, I think it all comes down to a matter of intent, which is what my point was in my blog post about this today:


There are a million ways to monetize software.

To me, open source is about a philosophy in how you treat your community, how you earn the user’s trust. As someone who’s been active in open source software since Linux’s version number started with 0, open core feels like a cop-out. It’s a way to say you’re open source without the “we’re working on good software together” attitude that’s made open source the success it is today. Instead, it just says “we’re gonna sell this commercial software, some of it in the fish bowl, and if people want to help us make it, we’ll let them.”

#17 David Dennis on 05.08.09 at 12:43 am


A question for you (and Tarus). Is this topic important to you because:

a) You believe it’s an important marketing differentiator for the software you work on vs. competitors
b) You believe it’s an important philosophical / moral issue worth evangelizing
c) both

Tackling a) involves traditional marketing objectives around branding, awareness, messaging, positioning, etc. Not necessarily a cake walk, but certainly possible to make progress.

Tackling b) involves changing the way people think and behave, which is much much more challenging.

#18 Benjamin Reed on 05.07.09 at 10:50 pm

(OK, apparently because the blog thinks I’m a robot and does a CAPTCHA if I post more than once to a story, it loses the threading. That last post was in response to David Dennis. Ergh. Is the source to this blog software open? )

#19 Matthew Aslett on 05.08.09 at 12:14 am

Yes. http://wordpress.org/download/

#20 Tales of the Raccoon Fink on 05.08.09 at 7:23 am

The Open Source Philosophy (Continued)…

The conversation has continued over at the 451 CAOS Theory blog. In response to my musings on intent, David Dennis asked a great question: Benjamin, A question for you (and Tarus). Is this topic important to you because: You……

#21 Benjamin Reed on 05.08.09 at 7:24 am


That is an excellent question, and my response was getting to be a bit too much for just posting in comments here, so I decided to do a follow-up to my previous blog post exploring that:


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