Has the time come to rebrand open source?

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Free and open source software


A business case for rebranding

OK, take a deep breath and don't panic! I assure you that I'm not asking you to do anything that you have not already done before. Let me explain myself before I go any further. I'm the CEO of a web design agency in Malmö, Sweden that specializes in web publishing and digital presence. We create websites using TYPO3 which is a web Content Management Solution.

The TYPO3 project, represented by the TYPO3 Association, uses different licenses, one for the distribution of software and its associated documentation, and one for contributions from individuals and corporations. These are free and open source software (FOSS) licenses based on the Apache CLA and GNU GPL version 2 and 3

So, what has this got to do with the title of my blog post? Well, at my weekly meetings with my sales team I started to hear the same problem over and over again... "The customer is worried about this open source software... they think its insecure." As a developer I had heard many similar myths and misconceptions concerning free software back in the day, like "How can you sell something that is free?" or "We don't trust or value software that we don't pay for."

I thought we had largely solved these problems with open source right? Open source is business friendly right? Open source was the silver bullet which would cut through the confusion... so why am I hearing this... again? Is my sales team simply not getting the point across? That may be true but going through the sales case studies on our files I saw a common pattern emerge in over 50 of those cases which made alarm bells ring loud and clear.

So, is my sales team to blame? Well we are making sales, in fact we are making more sales than ever before so they must be doing something right... right? The problem is the word open. At one point when I explained open source CMS to my client he responded... “So does that mean that anybody can change anything on my web page?”

A bigger piece of the pie

The rise of open source software and its impact on market share is undeniable, and I'm not saying we cannot sell open source. My point is that we think we can sell much more if we go back to the drawing board and seriously rethink about a re-branding which addresses the business concerns once and for all. FOSS is here to stay but why haven't we completely dominated the market rather than simply having a share of it?

Why is proprietary software still used by businesses? As a developer I understand the benefits of FOSS, and as a CEO my company is reaping them, however, since the establishment of the Free Software Foundation in the 80s and the Open Source Initiative in the 90s we have still not managed to convince businesses that our software is not free of charge and is secure... well at least in my case.

Community software

I wonder how many other businesses are experiencing the same problem. I'm keen to start a conversation about how others fare when selling FOSS solutions and whether its time to get together again and think again about a re-branding that will have my prospective customers asking, "OK tell us more" rather than "open sounds insecure". To that end I would like to nominate a brand new name that I have seen used in FOSS communities as a suitable candidate... Community Software.

When the people in the free software movement felt that free software was too hard to sell they redefined a new model called open source. That change, whether you agree with it or not, had a huge impact on the industry but when open source is closing doors its time to go back to the communities that inspired these movements and ask them if we can do better.

Time to change the way we tell the story

So, you see I don't think rebranding FOSS is a big ask. FOSS came from developer communities. As their success has grown in business we find our communities have diversified, and I think we need to reflect that diversification in the way we express ourselves. Community Software takes the focus away from an abstract idea about the openness of source code and places it firmly in the reality of communities, the people that constitute them and the values they represent.

I'm not suggesting that a rebranding will mean the end of discussions concerning the price and security of FOSS... far from it. I am however suggesting it will occur on a much more level playing field with propitiatory software. I want my sales teams discussing features at the same time the competition is and not having to reassure the client about what open source means.

Originally posted on the Pixelant blog. Reposted via Creative Commons.

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Robert Lindh | CEO of a web design agency in Malmö, Sweden that specializes in web publishing and digital presence. We create web sites using TYPO3 which is a web Content Management Solution.


As you know Rob we will be discussing this idea at www.t3ee.org and I'm sure it will be a lively conversation. I suggest we encourage the discussion to take place right here at opensource.com. I cannot think of a better forum to facilitate the exchange.

Will be an interesting discussion tomorrow. Lets se what the guys in the TYPO3 community think about this

In reply to by sal

I disagree. Open-source is a specific term that means the code is open source. Open source code can be free or non-free (i.e., you get the source when you pay for it and the license keeps you from distributing it). Community Software can be free, pay, open or closed source, as long as it's made by a community...so the name doesn't really relate to FOSS.

My point is actually that open source gets interoperated wrong. And i agree with you about community software could be anything you describe. But the way that we think about open source is just a branding we could do that with another name.

In reply to by shark lasers (not verified)

Open source is more than having access to the code. See the open source definition:

In reply to by shark lasers (not verified)

Open source is relates to the compliance of a software license with respect to the definition that Open Source Initiative has set. In the same way that the term Free software refers to software licenses that comply with the definition given by the Free Software Foundation. I think what is proposed by the term Community Software is that it is software that complies with existing standards as defined by FOSS. We are just using an "arguably" less ambiguous term to refer to it. A re-branding of FOSS is being proposed.

In reply to by shark lasers (not verified)

I fear some people will think "community" is the same as "communism"... because both words start with the same 7 letters. It's hard to find good, clear terms.

Usually before you rebrand you try out the terms on a test group. I would suggest the same. It's not clear to me that the new term is better than the old.

David absolutely i want a discussion around this and maybe there could be a much better name than "community software" my point is that it should be easier for common people to understand.

In reply to by David A. Wheeler (not verified)

We are hearing this a lot David and I had a suspicion that this would be case. Its sad to see that other people are echoing this sentiment although no one has actually said that they believe it...just that others might. I guess this will come out in the wash. We are not married to the term community and its all up for discussion. Hopefully a better term can be coined.

In reply to by David A. Wheeler (not verified)

I spent a number of years working in a similar situation, not as a developer, but as management's guy who was suppposed to make sure the in-house IT staff and the contract developers they hired actually delivered something useful.

My impressions:

1. No-cost software is not much of a selling point. The real cost is people, and we are orders of magnitude more expensive.

2. People who are obsessed with turning a profit usually assume that anyone who works hard to make something and then does not put a price on it has made something not worth using.

3. People do not understand security issues. Instead, they trust people. Managers will spend millions based on the word of a person or a corporation they trust that XYZ software is secure. The internet, as they see it, is inherently risky because it is a reflection of an inherently risky world.

Thanks for sharing your views. What do you think of the proposition for a re-branding and all that entails? Do you think its time for change?

In reply to by joncr (not verified)

A minor point, but spelling errors annoy me.
"About how others fair..." should be "About how others fare..."

How about fair software? Apologies for the bad joke, spelling and grammar ;)

In reply to by Greg P (not verified)

I suggest the word "Collaboration Software". This is much more business-friendly because they understand the word "collaboration".

I like this. We will collect all the suggestions we get and present them...perhaps as a poll? That should be revealing. Thanks for your suggestion.

In reply to by bamm (not verified)

But what about single developer FOSS? It's still Open Source but not "collaborative"? Plus, people can collaborate on something but have it NOT under an OSI license. IMO that would muddy the waters even worse ;)

In reply to by bamm (not verified)

I think there's room for multiple different terms here, each emphasising different aspects of open, collaborative development. For example, "open source" focuses on specific legal requirements set out by the Open Source Initiative in the Open Source Definition, while "free software" emphasises the "four freedoms" to run, inspect, redistribute, and modify the software.

"Collaborative development" would instead focus on the fact that because duplicating a piece of software is free, contributors can put in (for example), 10% of the effort required to create the software, yet have full access to 100% of the result. With everybody able to access the whole, it makes sense to contribute to making that whole better, rather than maintaining your own additions in private, where nobody can provide constructive feedback, and where the assumption that others wouldn't be interested in using or contributing to the project becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Increasing your own level of contribution then makes it more likely that other contributors are willing to listen to you, thus allowing you to effectively advocate for more significant changes than you could manage to implement on your own.

In this context, it's arguable whether or not "single developer FOSS" even exists any more. Those single developer projects are likely relying on other open source components (for example, using an open source language runtime, deploying to an open source operating system, or using open source development tools), and are in turn incorporated into larger collaborative development projects (like Linux distributions, OpenStack, open source web services, etc).

I personally like the term "collaborative software", as it emphasises that these software development communities are primarily aimed at folks that are looking for a co-developer experience - those that are entirely happy with the idea that suggestions for improvements are likely to be met with "contributions welcome".

If you just want a complete, refined, pre-integrated offering under a traditional customer/vendor model, then you really do want to be dealing with the commercial side of one of the open source vendors - turning customer suggestions and complaints into upstream contributions that are acceptable to the community is one of the key services those vendors provide.

It's also worth noting that both "collaborative software" and "collaboration software" are already used as synonyms for "groupware". Hence my use of "collaborative development" above - it not only avoids conflicting with those existing terms, but also emphasises that this isn't a software specific concept. Collaborative development applies to any output where the marginal cost of reproduction has been reduced to near zero by the creation of the internet, and there is a community of potential contributors where the ability to both use the end result and influence the direction of future changes provides sufficient intrinsic gains that extrinsic compensation isn't necessarily required.

In reply to by jimjag

Thank you very much for taking the time to provide this feedback. You raised a lot of points which have been expressed by others off line so its great that you captured them in your post. We have a number of potential candidates for this re-branding and we are in the process of formulating a criteria for which we can use to select and convey it in out message. Currently we are looking for a word which can translate consistency over the range of languages in the EMEA region. I think the word should also express more than just an abstract idea also point to a concrete thing but that still remains open to discussion.

In reply to by ncoghlan

Our salespeople have no problem selling FLOSS even though the english language limitation of free/gratis-libre causes some problems sometimes.
When people ask about security, we just tell them which companies use the LAMP stack or our CMS. Once they see its good enough for Fortune 500 companies, they feel much better.
When you tell them that Wordpress is used by The New Yorker, Sony, BBC America, Beyonce, Ebay, Best Buy, Xerox, NY Times, Dallas Mavericks and any other company they know or are in their field, it really cut downs their worries. If its good enough for these companies, its good for yours.
Since we do support, its a question of also trusting us being able to do support. Again, we show them what we do for our clients, what tools we use. But knowing that the stuff you use on their project is used by big companies like Reuters, Rolling Stones and Harvard Business Review goes a long, long way. Your sales guys should try this.

And no, community can mean literally anything. Its bad enough that 'open' has been as overused and meaningless as green, having a generic terminology isnt going to help.
If the only thing thats stopping your sales team from getting customers is the name open source, then they are not doing a good job.

I find that even with clients that have very little clue about technology, they've heard of Linux or Open Source. This isnt 1997. Like i said, openis the new green. While I think it cheapens things and is annoying overkill, its a term that is popular.
We have this discussion every 5 years since the days of free and then moved it to open. Its not new but for the people who arrive every 5 yrs and think it is.

Im not stopping you, I mean its your time. But there are a lot of orgs like the OSI and this site who have worked hard to make a living off it, they are going to be your biggest obstacles: the ones who have a financial stake in the name. Personally, I say free software which in my language means libre not gratis.

This was a really insightful post. I think in a situation like yours where your not experiencing the problems Rob and others have expressed, then at least from a business perspective, this conversation wont have much value.

One thing we are finding out however that the re-branding may have other positive side effects that are not necessarily sales related. We heard today from people that would like to see a more inclusive term used to express the diversity that exists in their companies and the teams that produce their software. They told us that a new term that reflects the diversity of those teams would have an overall positive effect on their businesses.

That was unexpected for us but I totally get it.

In reply to by sid (not verified)

Not sure what the intent is, or even the need. Community software doesn't "really" describe it.

The fact is that "Open Source" is either (1) already known and understood or (2) gaining traction and just needs to be better explained. Rebranding kills the progress already made by Open Source and simply moves the goalposts.

Instead of wasting time about re-branding, let's spend that time with simple education and advocacy. Must better use of resources and energy.

Thanks for the feedback Jim and your not the only person to have said this but I hazard a guess your technical person. Apologies if I'm wrong but most of the people who have told us that its just a matter of eduction have been people who live, east and breath FOSS. While I agree that education is key to understanding a concept how we refer to that concept does make its understanding easier. Try this little experiment out on none technical people. Simply ask them which term do you think is the least ambiguous when talking about software...open, free or community. I would be keen to hear your result :)

In reply to by jimjag

Well, "non-technical" is kinda nebulous... The general public may not know what Open Source is, but how many of them need to really grok it? Sure, there are some popular end-user FOSS programs out there, like Apache OpenOffice and GIMP, which are targeted to the generic user, but those are the exception, and the nuances of Open Source will be lost on them, imo, no matter what we call it.

The real target audience are developers and more technically oriented end-users and esp business/corps/gov't and other entities where FOSS provides significant reasons for use and adoption. And that is where re-branding would confuse things rather than make them more clear ("I've heard of Open Source, what is Community Software?" "Um, it's basically just Open Source." "Then why did you change the name?").

And the term "Open" itself is gaining more traction itself, mainly due to leveraging the brand of Open Source. You see things like "Open Data", "Open Government" and those terms are starting to make inroads. So even for those who don't really understand Open Source, they understand Open, and by explaining "source is like the recipe behind how to create software" it's pretty easy to make people grasp the concept I think.

In reply to by sal

Jim, I should have mentioned this before but these complaints about open source are coming from solution providers who are doing business in emerging markets with SME's. They are pitching at marketing executives of small firms that are not technically inclined. It seems that since FOSS has expanded into these regions the marketing message has simply been one that was translated directly from the existing English and that is hurting sales. So I get their grievances and as a self proclaimed advocate of FOSS I don't see changing a marketing message that would potentially drive sales in these markets as hurting FOSS. Its could work as an opt in re-branding scheme for these folk but with a seal of approval from exiting FOSS communities.

In reply to by jimjag

A quick look at an online thesaurus does give some negative connotations for "Open":
Susceptible, bare, disclosed, emptied, exposed, gaping, unbarred, unlocked, vacated, yawning...

Interesting. I have been told that its not a good term to use in Swedish with respect to software. I would guess its problematic in other languages too.

In reply to by Paul Kemner (not verified)

"Cooperative Software" might be better than "Community Software"? The authors, maintainers, and users are cooperating with each other to extend and improve it?

In reply to by sal

I can't see how this could improve situation.

First, Open Source and F/L/OSS are already well established term, and thanks to many projects people are beginning to understand it.

If a sales guy or a solution architect wants to encourage OSS, of course they will face problems stemming from misunderstanding of f/oss. One case is recent "spree" of alerts like Heartbleed and Poodle. If you think that this "hurts" open source "brand" and that trying to "rename" the whole thing can solve anything, you got it wrong.

For that matter, Heartbleeds and Poodles have *nothing* to do with f/oss. It was the same story: whole world relying on small group and expecting the software is secure because if everyone uses it developers just must do make it secure? This happens all the time with closed source. The difference is in that in open source you can find the problem, analyze it and fix it yourself.

Second, renaming thing for this reason seems like rather a dodgy and suspicious strategy.

Last but not least, with all respect you won't actually rename or re-brand anything. I can't imagine a reason that would persuade milions of people to use different term. (OK maybe a scientific proof that the term "open source" causes kittens cancer...?) Most you can do is split a small part of the community, and have it use different term (adding barrier of unnecessary confusion in the process) and and up ridiculed by the rest.

I think there are a number of issues here. Free Software existed before Open Source. The Open Source Initiative came about from a similar complaint that people have expressed about the term "open" only they had it about the term "free". So you see its not the first time this has happened. Now one can argue if it was the right thing to too do and depending on your values you will arrive at either the free software camp or the open source camp or you wont care.

What is being proposed here, at least from the business sales perspective is that we can do better if we change the word "open". This has largely come about because the markets that we sell software in have expanded and the word "open" is failing to translate well in those markets. That is a simple enough concept to grasp whether or not you agree with it or not. I guess open source has become a victim of its own success in these cases.

With respect to your last point well all I can say is that we wanted to start a conversation about re-branding and see if other people think its worth pursuing. What you imagine is or is not possible, with respect, is not relevant. People will either organise to effect the change if they believe its in their interest to do so or they wont.

So in starting this conversation we have found that there are people who think that they could benefit from such a change and surprisingly for us its not just about the bottom line. As I commented on a previous post some companies have expressed an interest in a more inclusive term to describe what they do. You see the software is just a part of the overall service that these solution providers provide. One really interesting thing I have heard so far is that they want to a term to express the diversity of their corporate cultures. I see the value in that. If you think this is suspicious then you need to say why and provide some evidence to make your case.

In reply to by John Doe (not verified)

While "open" has negative synonyms, it is descriptive of the accessibility of the innards, the source code. "Accessible Software" might, then, be a potential solution, but since that term already has connections to the disabilities community, it might not help.

"Proprietary" software is actually not so very sales-worthy a term. It needs to be described, too. It might even suggest the idea that only the original owner has rights to use it. Think the pharmaceutical industry as an example.

No actual name change may come of the discussion, but the discussion is good as it will draw in the new "every 5 years crowd." The discussion will build a set of support terms, each of which still might need disclaimers like "community - not related to a city or town", "collaborative - not requiring end-user feedback", "cooperative - not associated with the co-op movement" , etc. While no single term may emerge as THE term, a rich lexicon may make it easier to state the case for some specific sale/adoption.

The more the general business community becomes involved in the discussion and adoption, the more possible it will become for single individuals to see that they may also use FLOSS. If my company uses it, then it is okay for me, too. We are a tribal organism, after all.

I think you have a positive outlook on the proposition overall if I understand you comment correctly. I also agree that while no name change would occur the discussion is still important. I too share the view that as along we don't mislead with the message we choose we have plenty of words at out disposal to create a better, clearer message; especially when it comes to taking that message to non English speaking countries.

In reply to by Algot Runeman (not verified)

I was fortunate to be able to discuss the topic here at TYPO3 Eastern Europe in Cluj, Romania. The discussion is very necessary I think. We should not assume that users of FOSS are aware of the dynamics behind that. I was also supposing that this would have been widely known by know by everybody, but it just is not. So advocacy and education on the topic from a basic level is still necessary.

For some users or clients it also does not really matter whether or not it is Open Source or proprietary. That will be increasingly less important.

Thinking about re-branding is important though considering the fact that things change in the way we produce software. A while back software projects were mainly driven by white male developers. Now diversity in software projects is becoming more important and even essential to open up the projects to further participation. Many projects are proud of their community and even want people to 'stay for the community' or the projects are 'more then software'. It is difficult to keep people involved in the project in a meaningful way or rather to keep them motivated.

Re-branding Open Source to Community Software would honour diversity and gives a sense of belonging.

Of course we cannot all of a sudden rename Open Source everywhere, but in the context of the conversation we can raise awareness by talking about Community Software.

I would echo this sentiment and as mentioned the bigger picture of diversity and inclusiveness was a theme that really chimed with people. As FOSS expands into new markets a message that promotes diversity and inclusiveness will have real value. Ideas on how best to approach this also seem very reasonable on a risk return basis.

In a nutshell we are considering an opt in program, actively supported by FOSS communities, to re-brand FOSS for those companies that feel they may benefit from such a change. I'm keen to find out how words that refer to more concrete objects (such as people and community) fair against more abstract concepts (like free and open).

We are trying to formulate a short list of words that might help create an alternative message for these providers to use when pitching to non technical marketing executives of small and medium sized businesses. These seemed to be the type of businesses that are effected by the problem the most.

A criteria for selection should include that the fact the word in question should translate consistently across a broad range of languages. It should also clearly state in any definition that the term would only apply to FOSS compatible licensing but this would be presented as detail under a heading of diversity and inclusiveness.

So far the following terms have been suggested which would be suffixed by "Software":


In reply to by benvantende

immediately after i read this blog post, i realized that the message we want to get through is that the sw is made by people and that there're individuals who are responsible for it - "owners". that allows us to address issues directly (try to do it with proprietary sw - you hit a wall of "support" and sales).
after i read all the comments, i think that the feeling we want to evoke is trust. the customer buys our confidence. open, in my eyes, has this "stain" of "at everyone's disposal", especially in the eyes of stake holders - people who're actually pouring the money into the projects / companies. i don't know if community software is the best name for re-branding , but it certainly creates a feeling of security, confidence, support, trust, responsibility. it means that there actually are people responsible for the sw. someone here mentioned the F500 companies helping the sales. well, you guys have been using the confidence in F(L)OSS of others to make your sales. nothing wrong with it, but it'll be more likely if we can get the stories closer to the potential customers with a term that is closer to people and requires less of an explanation. open is for hippies (people who fully understand and appreciate what's behind it), but who can actually be one at work where there are pressures and money is sometimes the only value?

I think you touched on something really important which is currently lacking from the message we are conveying. You mentioned it "creates a feeling of security, confidence, support, trust, responsibility" with respect to the word community. Its great that you think that and I agree with you. You will have, I'm sure, noticed that it doesn't necessarily create these feelings in others and that's a cultural thing I expect. I think however in the markets that we are looking at, namely EMEA, the idea of community is positive thing and so I'm inclined to think that its a step in the right direction.

In reply to by goddard

That's a very good point indeed! I work for a company which leverages WordPress (open source as well) for our clients websites. Incidentally, since we have the client's trust, I don't actually hear a lot of comments about the usage of this open source platform.
However, I have heard a lot of similar comments related to WordPress (though I'm sure, as per your article, this applies to all open source platforms) from friends working in other companies. It seems to be the case that companies internally when deciding to set up various internal or external websites are steering clear of open source technologies -- in favour of building (!!!) their own clunky systems -- for reasons similar to the ones above. I would love to connect offline to talk a bit more about this and see if this makes an argument for a case study across various verticals and see what affects this adversity towards open source. It could be, as you suggest, that it's just in serious need of rebranding the term "open source".

Unwinnable battles & war, regardless of efforts or name change in some minds. The stigmatisms of Linux that were prior to the best distros and Android becoming top notch free offerings are going to be there. Some folks make their living off selling Microsoft & Apple and they don't play fair. It's like the door to door salesman that used to show up with a light meter to indicate a problem for a product they just happen to be selling resolves. A coincidental deception is inevitable for some of those types.

Thanks Robert for this illuminating article. I will immediately change the way I address open source components with my bosses and colleagues!

From today I will use the term: "Peer Reviewed Software".

As I work in the scientific world, this definition immediately make clear what I mean to my listeners.
Nobody will ever blame a scientific result of being "publicly accessible and inspectable in its entirety to anybody" - being this inspection free or non-free.
Shifting the discussion from a business point of view to a scientific point of view, I hope the focus will shift from cost and commercial support to "reviewers" (community), "citations" (integrations, inclusions, adoption as dependency/component), "references" (fork history).

Peer Reviewed Software. With the optional addition of "publicly", to underline the fact that entire process is fully transparent.

Open source advocates have already done the rebranding exercise once (that was why OSI was founded, and while it may have helped bring it into the mainstream, it did so at the cost of dividing the movement; I fail to see any positive benefits to doing so again. Open source does not dominate the desktop, but it plays a very prominent role in many other aspects of computing, and that is highly likely to continue as the years go on. Thus, I humbly suggest that what is needed is not rebranding, but patience and a continuing effort to counter misinformation.

I agree with you regarding the split between FSF and OSI. It was pretty ugly but I don't think you can deny the success of the OSI whether or not you agree with it. I see Community Software as a possible reconciliation of the two. I see Free Software as representing those in our community who for care more about the ethics of their work than about the software. The Open Source movement came about because they cared more about the technology. Community Software is concerned about the adoption FOSS. It represents business. We need all three in my opinion if we are to compete effectively with propitiatory software. We have to engage with business without compromising the values that FOSS represents and this seems like the most plausible to do it.

In reply to by John L. Ries (not verified)

I suggest : NPS - Non Proprietary Software

Reasons :

1. It directly says what it is and there would be no misundertstanding
2. This term can be used immediately and is not in conflict with "Open Source"
3. This "rebranding" can be introduced gradually until it has taken over

References :


Computer programs that are exclusive property of their developers or publishers, and cannot be copied or distributed without complying with their licensing agreements. Almost all commercial (shrinkwrapped) software is proprietary, but many excellent new programs (such as Apache web server, Linux operating
system, and StarOffice office suite) are non-proprietary (and free).


Proprietary software or closed source software is computer software licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder with the intent that the licensee is given the right to use the software only under certain conditions, and restricted from other uses, such as modification, sharing, studying, redistribution, or reverse engineering.[1][2] Usually the source code of proprietary software is not made available.

Complementary terms include free software,[2][3] licensed by the owner under more permissive terms, and public domain software, which is not subject to copyright and can be used for any purpose. Proponents of free and open source software use proprietary or non-free to describe software that is not free or open source.[4][5]

Open source codes are great to use since they're openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve and customize the design of the software

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