Terminology Advocates Protect FOSS

Open Source Initiative (OSI) president, Michael Tiemann, discusses adherence to the “open source” definition. I read his article with two interests in mind. First, of someone who feels semantics are important (I’ve always felt the poor argument “it’s only semantics” is little more than an attempt by small-thinkers to belittle what they are unwilling to invest effort into understanding). Second, because I think the labeling of software as open source or free has a profound impact on the communities that have grown from those movements. Advocates are important.

I think it’s positive that Tiemann is moving to be more adamant in ensuring correct usage of the “open source” terminology. I often read commentary on web sites that belittle Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) because he publicly promotes accurate usage of the “free” terminology in reference to the different ideology espoused by the FSF from the OSI. But among whatever else his efforts at promoting accurate terminology do, I think they also benefit the user in the way a consumer advocate’s efforts do (or in this case maybe, a community advocate).

So why does open source need such terminology and definition advocates? FOSS communities have put in considerable amounts of labour not just in developing and distributing software, but also in the methodologies that ensure its viability and business practices. When portions of the community (including what we’d normally identify as the “consumer”) decide to use open source software on the recognized benefits it provides, they’re right to expect those benefits. Those benefits flow from the common recognition and identification of “open source” as specified in its definition.

The open source community includes vendors and customers. If the meaning of “open source” is lost to its participants, what sort of cohesion could it still command? I think that a company calling its non-open source software “open source” in order to capitalize on the market seeking such software betrays the confidence of its customers. As a customer, I would question my willingness to transact business with a company that has misled me. So from those two perspectives, major segments of the community are alienated. In other words mislabeling software as “open source” actively harms the participants demanding and supplying the market for open source in the first place.