From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


""Openwashing" is a term derived from " greenwashing" to refer to dubious vendor claims about openness. Openwashing brings the old "open vs. proprietary" debate back into play - not as "which one is better" but as "which one is which?" (


by Jeffrey Pomerantz and Robin Peek:

"While these projects use the term “open” loosely, which may lead to ambiguity and confusion, at least they use the term in good faith. The same cannot be said of some uses of the term “open.” The term “openwashing” was coined to mean: “to spin a product or company as open, although it is not” (Thorne, 2009).

Examples of openwashing abound. Ulander (2012) criticized Sun Microsystems, Inc. for “open sourcing a technology, but maintaining complete ownership of the project direction and copyrights.” Finley (2011) levels a similar criticism at Eucalyptus Systems. Winer (2009) criticized the Guardian for making data available via an API, but not allowing its reuse. Wiley (2011) criticized the company Open Education Solutions for using the term when in fact open educational resources are only a very small part of the service provided. Villum (2014) criticized the company OpenCorporates for making data available only insofar as it “strengthens their opportunity to offer consultancy services.” Indeed, openwashing (or at least the perception of openwashing) is as old as open source software: the Free Software Foundation criticized Netscape, one of the very first pieces of commercial software ever to be open sourced, for use of a license containing terms unfavorable to contributors (Free Software Foundation, 2016).

In addition to the bile being vented in the blogosphere, many open communities have responded to openwashing with more rigorous definitions of what “open” means. The Open Source Initiative has developed the Open Standards Requirement for Software (Open Source Initiative, n.d.b), a set of criteria with which open standards must comply, so as not to discriminate against open source developers. PLOS (Public Library of Science) has developed the “HowOpenIsIt?” Open Access Spectrum, “to enable users to compare and contrast publications and policies” across a set of criteria (Public Library of Science, n.d.b). In 2014 the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) required all publishers of journals listed in the directory to reapply under a stricter set of criteria, in part to “weed out questionable journals” (Mitchell, 2015). Building on the DOAJ criteria, Graziotin, et al. (2014) have developed a “framework for systematically analyzing open access journals” to identify which of a set of core open access attributes a journal possesses. The Apereo Foundation, which has supported several open source and open education projects, has developed an Openness Index to “assess the openness of the organization/community that creates and manages” open artifacts (Masson and Udas, 2013). The Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Definition, discussed earlier, “makes precise the meaning of ‘open’ with respect to knowledge,” and has undergone several revisions to ensure this precision.

Thorne, who is credited with coining the term, suggests that “openwashing is a side effect of customers’ growing desire to have transparency and access in their services,” and that the more companies engage in it, “the greater the weight they’re indirectly giving these issues.” Other authors take an even stronger stance: Finley, for example, states flat out that “the old ‘open vs. proprietary’ debate is over and open won.” It’s not clear just what “winning” means in this context, as proprietary software still exists, and probably will for a long time to come. However, the very fact that some companies believe that it is a competitive advantage to present their products as open (truthfully or not), indicates that there is a significant market niche for openness.

Instead of devaluing the term “open,” openwashing may therefore actually be doing it a favor. As more products and resources are referred to as open, it raises awareness of the term. As the term is used more — sometimes loosely or even inaccurately — communities of interest develop stricter criteria for what it means for a resource to be open. As the term “open” is applied to more and more types of resources, the definitions for what the term means in those contexts become more and more precise. To use an evolutionary metaphor, we are currently seeing the term “open” undergoing speciation, as it is applied in new niches. As criteria are refined over time, the various species of openness are becoming increasingly well-defined. These different uses of the term “open” in different niches are not isolated from one another, however; there is considerable overlap, dictated by the use of open licenses." (


What does it mean to be open?

And how can you tell if a product is really "open"?

Klint Finley:

"Take NASA's experience with Eucalyptus Systems as an example. NASA's Chris Kemp told The Register that the space agency had concerns that Eucalyptus's open source private cloud computing solution couldn't scale to meet the agency's needs. NASA engineers tried to contribute some new code to Eucalyptus to make it more scalable, but Eucalyptus rejected the contributions because they conflicted with code available in a closed source version it sold.

The source code that NASA was using was available, fulfilling at least one definition of the term "open source." But it wasn't open for contributions from outside and Eucalyptus served as a gatekeeper for the product. Eucalyptus didn't mislead customers - it was upfront about the existence of its proprietary offerings - but by some standards its product wasn't open. Eucalyptus has recently made moves towards being a more open company. What is "Open"?

Openness can perhaps be best thought of as a scale rather than a binary state. Simon Phipps of the Open Standard Initiative (OSI) has suggested the creation of an Open Source Scorecard. Until such a thing exists, what can you do evaluate the openness of a product or solution?

Michael Coté of the analyst firm Red Monk says that in some cases openwashing is mere ignorance - a company's decision makers don't realize what really goes into making something truly open. In others, it's a matter of opinion. There's a lot of fine print involved, and not everyone agrees on what "open" is.

Gil Yehuda, the director of open source at Yahoo, says that a lot of companies are willing to release code but are reluctant to take contributions. "That's not really what open source is all about, but it does accomplish something," he says. Yehuda cites transparency, trust, motivation to write better code, and recognition for contributors as some of the benefits of such an arrangement.

But Yehuda says accepting contributions has its own benefits, such as "crowdsourcing bug-fixes, evolving the project in novel directions, and building real partnership with the community."


Complete the following steps to determine in which ways a product or solution is open.

1. Check the License

2. Evaluate the Community and Governance

3. Beware "Open Core" Software

4. Read the Terms of Service for "Open" APIs"


More information