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Truth In Labelling - Learning From "Organic"

When I wrote about Organic Software recently, I was largely eulogising the community dimension of open source software. But there's another way in which the idea of "organic software" is helpful to understanding the dynamic in free and open source software. Here are the comments I have been making at Open World Forum here in Paris.

Heather

Reading Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma gives an insight into the real vision of the community behind the term "organic" as applied to food. Pollan describes spending what were clearly a few life-changing weeks at a New England farm that "farms grass". They feed the grass to cows for dairy and for meat. They fertilise the grass with chickens, which give eggs and meat and themselves clear the waste left by the cows. They have a complete cycle of production, working the land and returning it to richness and fertility rather than treating it as a "natural resource", exploiting it for monoculture and relying on petro-chemicals to keep it going. This sustained cycle of richness was the original vision behind "organic" - a rebellion against industrial food, yes, but a positive rebellion leading to skilled people with quality lifestyles farming sustainably and leaving the land better than they found it while producing wholesome and natural food. They treat the farm like an organism - which was in fact the origin of the term.

Branding

"Organic", of course, is just a brand. Brands ought to be good things - attention-markers that classify their bearer in the group of things we trust. The appropriation of the term drives my scientifically-trained friends nuts, because they (like me) were taught to understand the word as a classification for carbon chemistry. But it's a strong brand that people seek out, and that strength has itself led to a problem.

Seeing that "organic food" rang bells for consumers, the food industry wanted to use the term to label their products. There's a problem, though. The food industry has optimised their supply chains by driving monocultures in different regions, driving down proces by commoditisation. They further exploit government subsidy for things like maize and petroleum by-products to drive up yield as the monocultures use them to increase crop volumes - at the expense of the land. All the exact opposite of the vision that led to "organic", in other words.

But people were willing to compromise in order to achieve a little good - "surely it's better to have something than nothing?". The food industry managed to get "organic" defined not holistically but in terms of "inputs" - the things needed to drive the monocultures. Rather than changing their production and economic systems, they simply switched to techniques so that the monocultures could come to harvest without artificial chemicals. The rest of the context? All the same. So today, most people think of "organic" as just meaning the absence of artificial additives and fertilisers in the ingredients in the foods we buy.

But "organic" means far more than just "inputs". It actually describes a whole approach to food, embracing the lifestyle of the producer, the lifestyle of the customer and the relationship between the two. It implies "slow food, "local food", animal welfare, local diversity, sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and more. Reducing it down just to the "inputs" misses the core values of "organic" and leads people to false conclusions (like the recent UK agency report denouncing organic food as no more nutritious than processed food). Inputs and nutrition are the currency of industrial food, where supposed health claims are the benchmark for marketing something unpalatable by ignoring the stuff that would make you run away (something that happens in the property market too). Hearing "organic" measured by them is a sure sign that the speaker has co-opted the brand rather than embraced the lifestyle and values.

Organic Software

Fruit stand in São Paulo

Which leads me to "organic software" again. An open source project is what happens when people gather round a free software commons to synchronise a fragment of their interests alongside others doing the same. To succeed, it depends on a mesh of factors, not just on the way the copyright is licensed (although that's important of course). Ultimately to proponents of open source communities and of free software, it's not just about ... well, it's not just about any one attribute. What's happened to software freedom when it was branded as open source seems to me analogous to what has happened to holistic agriculture when it was branded as organic. A valuable brand was indeed created - companies wouldn't want to use it otherwise.

The various discussions about the state of open source here at Open World Forum in Paris seem to me to often miss the heart of the issue for the software marketplace. The reason open source has made such a huge impact is that it delivers software freedoms to software users. Software freedom is the key, and a company with a focus on open source will do business by delivering value through software freedom. There's no one way to do it - every business will have a different model. But any company wanting to affiliate with the open source and free software movement needs to be graded on their impact on software freedom.

Software Freedom Means Business Success

A focus on software freedom isn't just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom:

  • The freedom to use the software for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees). This is what drives the trend to adoption-led deployment;
  • the availability of skills and suppliers because they have had no barriers to studying the source code and experimenting with it;
  • the assurance that vendors can't withhold the software from you because anyone has the freedom to modify and re-use the source code;
  • the freedom to pass the software on to anyone that needs it, even including your own enhancements - including your staff, suppliers, customers and (in the case of governments) citizens.
When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, because their budgets and success depend on it.

Truth In Advertising

That's about more than just licensing. It also includes factors such as diversity of copyright ownership, representative leadership, use of open standards, patent safety, control of trademarks, openness of governance and more. While measuring such "inputs" can never wholly identify the holistic concept which is software freedom, I am still convinced the next step for open source is to devise "open source definitions" for these other key attributes, so that we can get away from an undefined and loose understanding of an open source business and instead have a more nuanced approach.

What I would like to see is a move by OSI to create a suite of "open source definitions" against which a business could grade itself, and then indicate how many "stars" they score against the full suite. There would be very, very few businesses able to score a full set of stars, but the transparency of being able to see how companies rate in cultivating (rather just exploiting) software freedom would benefit us all in creating a strong, open market. We could set benchmarks in our procurement guidelines, requiring "no less than a five-star rating on the open source benchmark", just as we require ISO9001 and similar ratings. OSI as an organisation is ready for this evolution of its role. Who wants to help make it happen? It's time.