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FOSS: On the Road to Nowhere

Has FOSS traded its shared values for success in the marketplace?

FOSS road to nowhere

I started using free and open source software 20 years ago. In many ways, I’m delighted in how it has developed and spread. I can use KDE’s Plasma, the most advanced desktop on any platform, and it’s been 15 years since I needed to buy software for my professional work. From being an outlying oddity, FOSS has become the norm — so much so that invitations for bids often specify that the resulting software must be open source.

Yet I can’t help thinking that FOSS as a whole has lost its sense of shared values. Nor do groups that might provide those shared values, like the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Linux Foundation, seem capable of providing the leadership that could provide those shared values.

Oh, I’m aware that projects and foundations continue to provide leadership on a local scale. I am aware, too, of the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Leadership Summit, which helps to promote cooperative development. What is missing, though, is often the sense of everyone working towards the same goals for shared reasons.

The Way We Were

It didn’t used to be this way. In 1999, FOSS was going to change the world. Many of the early leaders of FOSS were among the first to sign The Cluetrain Manifesto and talk endlessly about how online resources were set to transform business. Free software was going to provide the infrastructure of developing nations, and ensure that online access became a basic part of freedom of speech. Back then, FOSS wasn’t just about code. It was about making a difference.

In fact, there was so much idealism that the difference between free software and open source was argued passionately. Some argued that free software stood for idealism, others that open source was a marketing term to help spread shared ideals, and still others (like Bruce Perens), that the two were interchangeable names.

At the core of all the activities was the FSF. The FSF got everything rolling when it wrote the copyleft licenses that powered the belief that sharing could be more effective than competition. People often argued about the FSF (as Debian did over the Free Documentation License), but the FSF generally set the terms of the debate.

The Decline of the FSF

Despite the rapid growth of FOSS, this situation started to fall apart near the end of the first decade of the millennium. It fell apart largely because of several missteps by the FSF. For one thing, the FSF chose to ignore the growing importance of the cloud, preferring to condemn it rather than to adjust to its rapidly growing importance. This choice made the FSF less relevant.

Just as importantly, the departure in 2010 of Peter Brown as FSF executive director meant his efforts to ally with other activists were largely abandoned. Brown tried for several years to make the use of FOSS as ordinary an issue as recycling, and had some small successes. Yet after his departure, this new direction was not continued for reasons that remain uncertain.

However, the largest misstep was pushing ahead with the third version of the GNU General Public License when consensus was lacking. Opposition to the new version was led by Linux’s creator and lead developer, Linus Torvalds, who insisted that the second version of the GPL would remain the license for the kernel.

While both sides of this debate had valid arguments, the result was the FSF’s loss of leadership in the community. Although the FSF’s decision to consult stakeholders about the revision started as another sign of the FSF’s leadership, ironically, the resulting permanent disagreements made many projects decide they could manage without listening to the FSF.

Today, the FSF’s Richard Stallman continues to lecture widely, but in many parts of FOSS he is seen as yesterday’s figure. The FSF itself continues to do important work, such as dealing with licensing issues and encouraging open hardware with its Respect Your Freedom certification, but it’s activities are reported less often was once the case. Its conferences, like the long running LibrePlanet, attract supporters, but few from the larger world of FOSS.

The Game of Thrones

You might think that the Linux Foundation might be a natural successor to the FSF. The Linux Foundation, after all, supports Linus Torvalds and other major kernel developers, and is quick to support groups like the recently announced Chips Alliance Project, for open hardware development. However, you would be wrong.

The Linux Foundation got off to a rocky start as a newcomer presuming to speak for the whole of FOSS. Its focus is on corporations, so much so that it easily accepted the membership of Microsoft, which even today is more than many FOSS developers can stomach. Moreover, while the foundation has recognized individual FOSS contributors, in 2016 it made community representation optional. As a result of such issues, in some circles the Linux Foundation is regarded with mistrust.

Nor is the situation improved by the foundation’s response to criticisms from the community. Executive director Jim Zemlin characterizes such responses as “part and parcel of the anti-establishment sensibility that makes open source communities great. Anyone who has been around open source for a while knows that responding to every criticism could essentially become a full-time job. We do think our work stands for itself.”

I have some sympathy with Zemlin’s views, but the tendency to ignore criticism only reinforces the belief that the Foundation is indifferent to the community. Admittedly, as Zemlin told me, “Any individual can participate in any Linux Foundation project.” However, that is not the point.

The point is that FOSS’s numerous projects and foundations — many of which would make a respectable corporation — are largely ignored by the Linux Foundation. While the Linux Foundation leads corporate Linux, it lacks the credibility to represent FOSS as as a whole.

Meaning vs. Market

The FSF and Linux Foundation are not the only organizations that could assume the moral leadership of FOSS. The Software Freedom Conservancy practices the same ideals that existed in FOSS twenty years ago. Similarly, after years of inactivity, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has been struggling recently to again be relevant. However, both have a long way to ago before they can speak for the majority of FOSS, assuming they would care to.

Maybe the loss of a single direction is a sign of the success of FOSS. Maybe shared ideals can only exist at a certain point in a movement’s development, and to wish otherwise is only meaningless nostalgia. Yet, despite the success of FOSS, today it has only partly transformed technology and business, and much remains to do. Unless we decide to content ourselves with what has already been done, I think that a sense of meaning — of making a difference — is more useful than seeing FOSS as nothing more than a shorter time to market.


  1. Tha-Fox Tha-Fox March 19, 2019

    Great article that gave me a lot to think about as an average Linux user.

  2. Anon Anon March 19, 2019

    That would be /Peter/ Brown.

  3. Jamil Soni Jamil Soni March 19, 2019

    That is an interesting phenomenon, that people do not really help each other if they do not really have the very same ideas… So there is so much split, so little effort to do something communal.. And I am talking about academia, but it is so like in FOSS world, too. Those similarities struck me now. They must have the sames root but I do not understand it fully yet.

  4. Bruce Byfield Bruce Byfield Post author | March 20, 2019

    Thanks for catching that. It’s corrected.

  5. Libre Libre March 21, 2019

    “Yet I can’t help thinking that FOSS as a whole has lost its sense of shared values.”

    When you take or leave out “Libre” you take away it’s true shared value. It’s FLOSS not FOSS …the “L” is for Libre, Freedom.

  6. Bruce Byfield Bruce Byfield March 23, 2019

    Thank you for trying to school me. But I learned the acronyms 20 years ago, and the fact is that “FOSS” and “FLOSS” are interchangeable synonyms. Please don’t mistake your preference for correctness.

  7. Thad Thad March 25, 2019

    Regarding the FSF’s lack of attention to the cloud: the rise of SaaS has revealed a glaring oversight in both the GPL and the OSD, as the former allows cloud providers to serve modified versions of GPL software without contributing their source code under the GPL, and the latter allows licenses that restrict other software provided as part of a package on a server.

    Of course we’ve got the Affero GPL to deal with the former issue, but it’s even less used than the GPLv3.

    Adding: man, the Captcha on this page is freaking terrible; it took several minutes of clicking on things before I was allowed to comment.

  8. Mike Mike March 26, 2019

    Bruce’s reply to Libre isn’t entirely correct.

    Stallman makes a distinction with regard to clarity and intent regarding the two terms and I have to agree with him:

    That said, the terms are often used interchangeably by people who don’t care about the distinction, or who are ignorant of it, i.e. most everybody. That is not the same as saying the distinction does not exist, which seems to be Bruce’s stance; please correct me if I am wrong. Note: The term “ignorant” here is not intended to be pejorative…just a common fact. Let’s face it, the fine details of software licensing are not on any typical person’s radar.

    In my opinion Libre/Free Software, whatever you call it, has what amounts to a severe marketing problem. This has periodically bugged the snot out of me. How many decades later and we still have to explain the difference between free-as-in-speech and free-as-in-beer, or use a term like libre which is hardly common?

    Just call Libre/Free Software FREEDOMWARE or something equally descriptive and get it over with already! That way people will reply: “Ooh, what’s that?!” (because everybody loves freedom, right?!) instead of the current situation of explaining the word ‘free’ and/or ‘libre’ ad nauseum to increasingly bored recipients.

    People can debate the differences between open source and FREEDOMWARE, but at least we’d have an unambiguous term to start with.

  9. Mike Mike March 26, 2019

    Also, on the topic of the article itself:

    My answer is: Yes and no.

    I think as FOSS/FREEDOMWARE has scaled ever larger, the increased participation has come from a pool of people and corporations that often don’t care about the values the early movement held.

    So as a ratio, yes there has been a loss of values, but no I don’t think most of the people who originally held those values have abandoned them.



    The Linux Foundation is no friend to user freedom. They are a “corporations only” club looking out for the bottom line. I’m very interested in the attention they are now receiving from

    Most other corporations are actively hostile to FREEDOMWARE values (see Microsoft) or strategically neutral. Very few actually promote anything beyond lip service (see Google). Even trusted entities like Mozilla and the W3C (including Tim Berners-Lee) have betrayed those values when convenient:
    For more information about how Berners-Lee directly betrayed users:

    About the only organization that I can think of who is consistently on the right side of things is EFF.ORG

  10. Mike Mike April 4, 2019

    Oh, look:

    I wonder how Mozilla will justify going along with the charade that is the W3C? I wouldn’t hold your breath for an ethical response.

    I don’t ever want to see another “news story” puff piece that portrays Tim Berners-Lee as some kind of freaking hero for giving us the corporate surveillance net that is the modern web. I see he’s now trying to spin some bs about a new way of preserving privacy that is nothing more than another start-up cash grab.

  11. Bruce Byfield Bruce Byfield April 5, 2019

    About FOSS and FLOSS:

    I disagree with Stallman’s suggestion that FOSS isn’t clear. FOSS amalgamates two existing terms, and emphasizes that the two have more in common than not. By contrast, the first two letters of FLOSS are not immediately recognizable in their reference and have an unfortunate suggestion of the dentist’s office.

    At any rate, I am a strong descriptivist when it comes to the English language. I maintain that meaning comes from common usage, not from any authority. That’s not to say that you can’t try to encourage a usage, of course, but the attempt can be difficult and often futile — and can obscure more important matters.

  12. Mike Mike April 5, 2019

    > “I maintain that meaning comes from common usage, not from any authority.”

    I agree, and I do think the difference between the terms is small to the point of being pedantic. As I pointed out, there are much bigger issues.

    I do think that it is very unfortunate that both the terms ‘free software’ and ‘open source software’ are subject to abuse and shady manipulation. Free-as-in-beer but not libre software in the case of the former, and visible source under anti-libre constraints in the second. That’s without even getting into the whole contributor license agreement, or open-core, messes.

  13. Christine Hall Christine Hall April 6, 2019

    Here’s my take on the whole FOSS/FLOSS thing and why the site is called FOSS Force instead of FLOSS Force (other than the fact that FLOSS wasn’t a common term when the site first went live).

    Since “libre” basically means “free”, the term FLOSS is redundant (free free and open source software). Because of this, the use of the term FOSS and “free and open source software” (or simply “free software”) is dictated by the site’s style guide, so we do not use the acronym “FLOSS” or the phrase “free libre open source software” on the site.

    We have no argument, however, with those who use the acronym or phrase, or advocate for its use. As Bruce pointed out, it’s all a matter of choice, and choice is part of the root of free software.

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