Feedback appreciated for "There is no Free Software company - But!"

Matthias Kirschner mk at
Tue Nov 15 17:28:30 UTC 2016

I just published a blog post about a topic we discussed at the FSFE's
last general assembly. Please let me know what you think about it.
Looking forward to your feedback. 

(The text is also online available under
<>. Feel free to
share it so we get a wide range of feedback.)

# There is no Free Software company - But!

Since the start of the FSFE 15 years ago, the people involved were certain that
companies are a crucial part to reach our goal of software freedom. For many
years we have explained to companies – IT as well as non-IT – what benefits
they have from Free Software. We encourage individuals and companies to pay for
Free Software, as much as we encourage companies to use Free Software in their

While more people demanded Free Software, we also saw more companies claiming
something is Free Software or Open Source Software although it is not. This
behaviour – also called *"openwashing"* is nothing special for Free Software,
some companies also claim something is "organic" or "fair-trade" although it is
not. As the attempts to get a trademark for "Open Source" failed, it is
difficult to legally prevent companies from calling something "Free Software"
or "Open Source Software" although it does neither comply with the Free
Software definition by the Free Software Foundation nor with the Open Source
definition by the Open Source Initiative.

When the FSFE was founded in 2001 there was already the idea to encourage and
support companies making money with Free Software by starting a "GNU business
network". One of the stumbling blocks for that was always the definition of a
Free Software company. It cannot just be the usage of Free Software or the
contribution to Free Software, but also needs to include what rights they are
offering their customers. Another factor was whether the revenue stream is tied
to proprietary licensing conditions. Would we also allow a small revenue from
proprietary software, and how high is that that you can still consider it a
Free Software company? 

It turned out to be a very complicated issue, and although we were regularly
discussing it we did not have an idea how to approach the problems in defining
a Free Software company.

During our last meeting of the FSFE's General Assembly we came to the
conclusion that there was a flaw in our thinking and that it does not make
sense to think about "Free Software companies". In hindsight it might look
obvious, but for me the discussion was an eye opener, and I have the feeling
that was a huge step for software freedom.

As a side note: When we have the official general assembly of the FSFE we
always use this opportunity to have more discussions during the days before or
after. Sometimes they focus on internal topics, organisational changes, but
often there is brainstorming abut the "hot topics of software freedom" and
where the FSFE has to engage in the long run. At this year's meeting, from 7 to
9 October, inspired by Georg Greve's and Nicola Diedrich's input, we spent the
whole Saturday thinking about the long term challenges for software freedom
with the focus on the private sector.

We talked about the challenges of software freedom presented by economies of
scale, networking effects, investment preference, and users making convenience
and price based decisions over values – even when they declare themselves
value conscious.

One problem preventing a wider spread of software freedom identified there was
that Free Software is being undermined by companies that abuse the positive
brand recognition of Free Software / Open Source by "openwashing" themselves.
Sometimes they offer products that do not even have a Free Software version.
This penalises companies and groups that aim to work within the principles of
Free Software and damages the recognition of Free Software / Open Source in the
market. The consequence is reduced confidence in Free Software, fewer
developers working on it, fewer companies providing it, and less Free Software
being written in favour of proprietary models.

In the discussion, one question kept arising. Is an activity that is good for
Free Software which is done by one small company as their sole activity more
valuable than if the same thing were done as part of a larger enterprise? We
all agree that a small company which is using and distributing exclusively Free
Software, and has done so for many years, and no part of the software they
wrote or included was ever non-free software is good.  But what happens if said
small, focused company got purchased by a larger entity? Does that invalidate
the benefit of what is being done?

We concluded that good action remains good action, and that the FSFE should
encourage good actions. *So instead of focusing on the company as such we
should focus on the activity itself*; we should think about ***"Free Software
business activities", "Free Software business offers"***, and such. My feeling
was that this was the moment the penny had dropped, while others and me
realised the flaw in our previous thinking. We need action oriented approaches
and we need to look at activities individually.

There was still the question where to draw the line between acceptable or
useful activities and harmful ones. This is not a black and white issue, and
when assessing the impact for software freedom there are different levels. For
example if you evaluate a sharing platform, you might find out that the core is
Free Software, but the sharing module itself is proprietary. This is a bad
offer if you want to run a competing sharing platform using Free Software. 

The counter example of an acceptable offer was a collaboration software that
was useful and complete, but where connecting a proprietary client would itself
require a proprietary connector. It was also discussed that sometimes you need
to interface with proprietary systems through proprietary libraries that do not
allow connecting with Free Software unless one were to first replace the entire
API/library itself.

Ultimately a consensus emerged around a focus on the four freedoms of Free
Software in relation to the question of whether the software is sufficiently
complete and useful to run a competing business.

One thought was to run "test cases" to evaluate how good an offer is on the
Free Software scale.  Something like a regular bulletin about best and worst
practice. We could look at a business activities and study it according to the
criteria below, evaluate it, making that evaluation and its conclusions public.
That way we can help to build customer awareness about software freedom. Here
is a first idea for a scale:

* EXCELLENT: Free Software only and on all levels, no exceptions.

* GOOD: Free Software as a complete, useful, and fully supportable product.
  Support available for Free Software version.

* ACCEPTABLE: Proprietary interfaces to proprietary systems and applications,
  especially complex systems that require complex APIs/libraries/SDKs, as long
  as the above is still met.

* BAD: Essential / important functionality only available proprietary, critical
  functionality missing from Free Software (one example for an essential
  functionality was LDAP connector).

* EVIL: Fully proprietary, but claiming to be Free Software / Open Source

**Now I would like to know from you:** what is your first reaction on this?
Would you like to add something? Do you have ideas what should be included in a
checklist for such a test? Would you be interested to help us to evaluate how
good some offers are on such a scale?

To summarise, I believe it was a mistake to think about businesses as a whole
before and that if we want to take the next big steps we should think about
Free Software business offers / activities – at least until we have a better
name for what I described above. We should help companies that they are not
deluded by people just claiming something is Free Software, but give them the
tools to check themselves.

Matthias Kirschner - President - Free Software Foundation Europe
Schönhauser Allee 6/7, 10119 Berlin, Germany | t +49-30-27595290
Registered at Amtsgericht Hamburg, VR 17030  | (
Contact (  -  Weblog (

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