Mere Open Source

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 2:26 PM

What is Open Source? It is a simple enough question, yet the answer has become so obscure that it is anything but simple. The phrase is undisputedly at the core of what drives the Linux community even while it eludes nearly everyone as to what its exact definition is.

Some would question why we even need to define a term like open source in a set manner. I think the late scholar C.S. Lewis described the reasoning for defining a term best when he wrote the following:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. … But then there came people who said-so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully-“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? … As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.1

Like the word gentleman, the phrase open source is in danger of becoming a diluted, meaningless word that conveys nothing beyond the source being available. Perhaps you are new to the open source community or maybe you have been here awhile, either way, chances are you may not understand the full meaning of open source. That is why I think it is crucially important to set the record straight before we lose the term that so aptly describes this wonderful genre of software.

When I started this consideration of the phrase open source, I decided it would be best to start at the beginning. Open source was coined to refer to a grouping of licenses such as the BSD license and the GNU GPL, which are also known as “free software” licenses (free in this case referring to free speech or freedom, not cost). The idea, at least partly, was to move away from the troublesome term “free software” which was oft confused as a statement of price rather then freedom.

So then, what exactly is “free” software? Richard M. Stallman, the popularizer of this term, remarks that free software can be defined as “a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.”2 In other words, software that allows the licensee to do virtually anything with the software, save claiming the author has liability if anything goes wrong.

That is all well and good you say, but what about open source? After all, that is the topic of this commentary, right? You may be surprised to hear this, but according to the Open Source Initiative - the organization that came up with the term - open source means “the software must be distributed under a license that guarantees the right to read, redistribute, modify, and use the software freely.”3 Sound familiar? If it does, that is probably because this statement is a virtual paraphrase of Stallman's definition of free software. Furthermore, OSI states that open source is a “marketing program for free software.”4 This shows that at least in its purest form, open source is free software, minus the ideological arguments.

Clearly this is not a popular stance on the issue these days. Many groups, including OSI, have slowly forgotten this for one reason or another. Companies prefer a looser definition for marketing reasons - if you can whittle away the definition, then you can call your restrictive license “open source” (such as the Sun Solaris Source Code License). Users and organizations, perhaps as a matter politeness like in Lewis' example, seem to feel it is not their right any longer to say what is open source. After all, if something really great lets you see the source code, and use it for noncommercial use - isn't that better then a so-so program that is fully open? Isn't it alright if software companies add a few restrictions to their licenses to help the bottom line, so long as the code is still there?

This is where the question of what open source really is becomes very important. Many companies love to wave the “correct” banner of open source, but will gladly try to change its definition when it suites their purposes. A couple of examples of “redefined” open source are the YaST License for SuSE's Linux configuration tool and - until recently - the Apple Public Source License that covers core parts of MacOS X (known as Darwin). By themselves, these licenses would not be a problem, the real problem emerges when the companies use clever PR to justify their cause. For example, in my arguments against the YaST license, I have received many counterclaims from both SuSE employees and users who blindly accept what the PR machine spews forth - “open source equals open code.”

Another apparent problem is the term itself. The phrase open source seems to imply that the main point is availability of source code. Clearly this is not the case, since open source code by itself overlooks other necessary freedoms such as the freedom to modify and redistribute the said code. However, even with the definition clearly in place, many people refuse to see that open source is anything more than allowing people to see the source code.

The problem with all of the various arguments is that, like what Mr. Lewis spoke about, they are “so right, charitable, spiritual, sensitive, so anything but useful.” They overlook the fact that open source would never be where it is today if not for all the freedoms it allows. Open source has succeeded only because of its unique combination of freely available and modifiable code, the ability to share that code, and the commercial benefits allowed concerning the code. Without any of these key components, open source falls flat, like a loaf of bread without yeast.

As an IT worker, I think this is the critical point for you to recognize. When looking into an open source project or Linux distribution, you should be wary of projects that tamper with the definition of open source. Often, these quasi-open projects founder and without all of the freedoms provided through open source, if the original developers drop the project there is a lot less chance that someone will pick up the project and continue it.

That is why it is so important to understand the real meaning of open source. If we fail to understand it, we may very well be led slowly into accepting concepts that clearly fall short of the advantages open source should provide. Sadly, when this happens the critics can blame all kinds of problems on “open source,” and no one will be able to disagree.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at
tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.

1 Lewis, Clive Staples; Mere Christianity; Preface p. XIII

2 Stallman, Richard M.;The Free Software Definition; http://www.gnu. org/philosophy/free-sw.html

3 The Open Source Initiative; Frequently Asked Questions; http://www.

4 Ibid.