As plants grow so do the weeds, and though this may be a stark comparison when referring to open source and “openwashing”, it is still no less true. Like a weed that sucks the nutrients surrounding a well-tended plant, “openwashing” allows some organizations to somehow mooch off of whatever success the open source movement has gained, without truly being open source.
The term was first coined some 20 years ago and yet it seems to be as significant now as it ever was. But the years have given it quite a number of interpretations– so exactly what is openwashing?
Michelle Thorn, Mozilla’s Director of the Webmaker Program, was the first to define openwashing: “To spin a product or company as open, although it is not.” Since then this definition has undergone numerous interpretations and specifications. Generally however, it can be defined as the act of offering source code or claiming a company to be open but:
- Keeping the “cash cow” code proprietary and closed.
- Exploiting all commercial elements of project business but putting no discernable or definable hours into open source projects.
- Offering no substantial “code commits” to any open project or related projects from other groups. (ComputerWeekly.com)
Openwashing is said to be the side effect of the rapid growth and adoption of open source. Customers and users wanted to have transparency and access in their services, so much so that they embraced open source so quickly. This happened at such a rate that most organizations couldn’t keep up with open source in terms of knowledge and understanding. The inevitable result was either the organizations just quickly adopted the term without fully knowing or applying the necessary standards or, upon seeing the mass appeal of open source purposefully took advantage of it, capitalizing on its success.
Given the above definition many would agree that openwashing is still very much present today, but this presence may just have a silver lining.
The Effect of Openwashing
As the term “open” became increasingly used and abused, more and more became aware of the term and how it should be used. Because of openwashing, communities have developed stricter criteria for what it means for a resource to be open. As these criteria are refined over time, openness becomes increasingly well-defined. (p2pfoundation.net)
So instead of devaluing the term “open”, openwashing has actually raised awareness of the term and encouraged people to be more judicious with their use of it. Regardless of this positive effect however, openwashing remains a highly frowned upon practice that should be discontinued. Organizations claiming to be open source should look into what it is to be truly open source, and endeavour to meet the standards set by the Open Source Initiative. End users should also make it a point to review the openness of their chosen product or solution by checking licenses, evaluating the project’s community and governance as well as their terms of service.