5 Things We Have Forgotten About Open Source

Note: in order to satisfy the exquisite tastes of today’s discerning internet readers, the following blog post is written in Cracked.com style.

We have been using open source for so long that we have forgotten, culturally, where it came from. It seems so natural and ubiquitous that we can no longer remember how things were before it. Some of us are young enough to have never even lived through times were open source wasn’t everywhere.

I am here to set the record straight on a few things, because I have noticed that even people who have lived through ye olden times have forgotten where things came from. Open source wasn’t spawned single-handedly by the sheer might of Linus Torvalds’s virtual gonads. Open source doesn’t mean that money is forbidden. Open source doesn’t mean that Richard Stallman is a twit.

1. “Open source” is a term coined by OSI

First things first, and the #1 thing most people have forgotten about open source: the term did not arise naturally. It was invented in early 1998 during the release of Netscape Navigator as the free Mozilla suite. The Open Source Initiative, composed of trailblazers such as
Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, decided that we needed a new name for what was about to happen. They got together with other people and Christine Peterson suggested the term, to much rejoicing. She then vanished back into the shadows and went back to being a nanotechnologist or something.

Open source was created... by a girl?!?!
Wait, wait, wait, let me get this straight. Open source was created… by a girl?!?!

OSI is an organisation that got together for a single purpose: to keep saying “open source, open source, open source” so much until everyone else was saying it too. Tim O’Reilly was a big driving force behind this too, putting money into the campaign. This was all in February 1998, remember. That means open source is barely a year older than The Matrix. Neo had probably not even heard about it, because…

2. Nobody called it “open source” before OSI

The greatest testament to how good OSI’s marketing campaign was is that we have come to believe that the term is so natural that we always just called it that. They have convinced us all that “open source” was our idea, without needing to get into our dreams to do so.

... and from now on, you will worship penguins and red t-rexes.
… and from now on, you will worship penguins and red t-rexes.

Needless to say, it was not our idea. Check it out, Google cannot find any mention of “open source” before 1998. That is because, by far, the most common way to refer to “open source” before 1998 was “free software”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh god, not this stupid flamewar again. Jordi, we know you’re a FSF-spouting propaganda drivel machine, why do you keep pushing the stupid term for open source that Richard Stallman keeps talking about?”

Wait, wait, hear me out. It wasn’t just Richard Stallman who called it “free software”. You know FreeBSD? The “free” in there doesn’t just mean “without a fee”. They really do mean free as in freedom. Or look at what OpenBSD calls itself a few times while rocking out to sweet, sweet, pufferfish freedom:

[…] we instead celebrate the 10 years that we have been given (so far) to write free software, express our themes in art, and the 5 years that we have made music with a group of talented musicians.

Here is a cartoony yellow pufferfish fighting a fearsome cartoony black blob... but is it art?
Here is a cartoony yellow pufferfish fighting a fearsome cartoony black blob… but is it art?

That’s right, even the biggest haters of the FSF and the GPL, and the most ardent opponents of His Exalted Bearded Gnuliness Richard the Stallman call themselves “free software”.

Amusingly enough, you probably never really noticed this, but the very same Mozilla for whom “open source” was initially coined, tried to call itself “organic software” for a while. No, seriously, they did.

100% GMO-free. No pesticides. Hacked into being by loony hippies.
100% GMO-free. No pesticides. Hacked into being by loony hippies.

3. Open source has a precise definition

Now, here’s the thing: OSI didn’t just say, “here is open source, go wild and free, call anything you want open source!” Nope, in what might appear at first blush to be a cruel ironic twist, OSI did not make the definition of “open source” itself open source. In fact, they even trademarked “open source”, and ask that you only use the phrase according to their trademark guidelines!

Those controlling bastards trampling on our freedom with their smug little ®
Those controlling bastards trampling on our freedom with their smug little ®

Alright, so what does “open source” mean?

Well, in the beginning, Bruce Perens wrote the Debian Free Software Guidelines (there’s that pesky “free” term again). Then, he decided he was just going to grab those very same guidelines, run sed -i s/Debian/Open Source/g, and make that the official definition of open source.

This means that “open source” means a lot more than just “show me the code”. In particular it means that,

  • If you don’t let people sell it, it’s not open source.
  • If you don’t let people give it to their friends, it’s not open source.
  • If you don’t treat all receipients of your software equally, it’s not open source.
If you're not a pinko commie ideologue, it's not open source.
If you’re not a pinko commie ideologue, it’s not open source.

So why did OSI insist so much on a precise definition of open source? Well, because…

4. “Open source” is a synonym for “free software”

Okay, this is one that really gets people riled and the one where the flamewars arise. I am here to tell everyone that if you’re flaming over whether stuff is open source or if it’s free software, you guys need to chill the fuck out: everything that is open source is also free software, and vice versa.

I bet that declaration alone is gonna rile everyone up even more, eh?

This guy has tuned to perfect his built-in flamewar radar under his beard through years of hard labour in the Usenet grand banks.
This guy has tuned to perfection the built-in flamewar radar under his beard through years of hard labour in the Usenet grand banks.

Okay, let’s look at this from a different angle with an analogy. The issue here is with something that philosophers like to call intensionality vs extensionality.

You know how Canada is a constitutional monarchy, right? And you know how there is a Queen of Canada who is the head of government? The Constitution Act of 1867 establishes that Canada has a monarch. She has fun duties such as for example being assigned the copyright of anything an employee of Her Majesty’s Government does. Great fun, I once had someone send us Octave patches under the name of Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.

An elite hacker if I've ever seen one.
An elite hacker if I’ve ever seen one.

Now, you might recognise that lady above, and you probably also know that England also has a queen, and by now my astute readers and you have doubtlessly put together that the Queen of Canada also happens to be the Queen of England. Two names for the same person!

However, Canada’s Constitution Act doesn’t actually specify “The Queen of Canada will be whoever occupies the position of Queen of England”. It just says that Canada has a queen and goes on to list the duties of said queen. This is called the intensionality, the words by which we describe what something is. The extensionality refers to the actual objects in the world that are described by these words. In this case, “Queen of Canada” and “Queen of England” could, perhaps, under some weird political shenanigans end up being two different people, but in practice they end up referring to the same person. So the extensionalities of “Queen of Canada” and “Queen of England” are the same.

Couldn't resist putting another picture of this lovely lady's stylin' fashion...
Couldn’t resist putting another picture of this lovely lady’s stylin’ fashion…

It is the same with free software and open source. The definitions look different, but in practice the software that they refer to ends up being the same. Oh, sure, there are some very minor disagreements over whether this or that license is OSI-approved but not FSF-approved or vice versa, but the whole point of coining “open source” was to have another word to refer to “free software”.

In other words, it was always OSI’s intention for “open source” to be a synonym for “free software”. Hell, even Bruce Perens said so. Why did OSI want a synonym?

5. Open source came with certain promises

The whole point of coining the phrase “open source” was to push a certain point of view. The biggest proponent for the “open source” phrase was Eric Raymond. He and OSI have always described open source as marketing for free software.

So this marketing campaign came with certain promises, promises that we have forgotten were ever part of a marketing campaign by OSI, because they’re so ingrained into open source itself. Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before

  • Open source is a cheaper model to develop software
  • Open source ensures that software has fewer bugs, because more eyes can look at the source code
  • Release early, release often.
  • The best software is created by scratching an itch.

And so on… the whole point was to make free software attractive to business by de-emphasising the whole “freedom” part of it. Instead, OSI promised that by making your software open source, you would have better software, that open source was a better development model, leading to cheaper, less buggy software.

Less buggy? Really?
Less buggy? Really?

The “cheaper model” thing is also still a fairly popular meme nowadays. When you look at free projects in Ohloh.com, one of the lines is how much money it would have cost to build this or that under some model called COCOMO.

I’m not trying to say that OSI is right or wrong about its promises. Some free software really is less buggy than non-free variants. It probably is way cheaper to develop Linux when all of the big companies chip in a few developers here and there to maintain it. All I’m saying is that we have forgotten that with the word “open source”, certain promises came attached to it. Some of these promises might even appear to be broken in some cases.

So next time you hear someone tell you that there will be fewer bugs and everyone will come sending you patches the moment you reveal your source code, remember that they’re repeating campaign slogans. And remember that even if those slogans might not always be true, there might be other reasons why you should give everyone else freedom to enjoy and distribute and hack your software.

8 thoughts on “5 Things We Have Forgotten About Open Source

  1. Regarding point 1:

    Check this 1993 document by NASA: “National security and national competitiveness: Open source solutions; NASA requirements and capabilities”

    I tried to post the link to Google Books but your website told me it was spam and to “try to say something useful” :(

    I also remember using the term in the early 1990’s and I didn’t coin it – others were using it.

    1. Sorry about the spam filter. I do get a lot of blog spam. :-)

      The term “open source” in this article refers to a military term, completely unrelated to software or hardware, open source intelligence. Read the article. It has a completely different meaning.

      esr even acknowledges that the term existed before, with a very different meaning. He writes, “Yes, we’re aware of the specialized meaning “open source” has in the intelligence community. This is a feature, not a bug.”

  2. Here’s just one pre-1998 use of the term “open source software”, by Bill Joy, at 13:50 in this 1985 interview of/report about Bill Joy, Sun and Unix 4.2 on the Computer Chronicles:

    “As for the future of Unix, he [Bill Joy] says its open source code, versatility and ability to work on a variety of machines means it will be popular with scientists and engineers for some time.”

    It’s on youtube under the title, “The Computer Chronicles: UNIX (1985).

    Maybe someday Google searches will include all transcripts of all videos relevant to our searches.

    1. Thanks, I honestly looked high and low for anyone calling software “open source” before 1998. Your example is the only one I know of so far. I asked esr, who said there were some stray mentions here and there, but he couldn’t recall anyone particularly who used the term. I also asked Bruce Perens and Stallman, but none of them could think of anything that was called “open source” before 1998. So, despite this one-off use of the term in this video, it seems nevertheless true that the term was not at all in widespread use nor widely understood.

      It is also true that besides “open source” there were other ways to refer to the software, although it was generally considered mostly unremarkable to have source code available, because it was just the natural state of affairs to be able to look at source code. It was only when this natural state changed that people started to insist on consistent terminology for free software and open source.

    2. I think you are parsing “open source code” wrong here: He meant (open (source code)), not ((open source) code). So he doesn’t use the term “open source” at all, he’s just talking about source code which is openly available (to those who pay the license fees). People (especially in the Unix community were big on openness then: There was the Open Systems Interconnection, the Open Systems Group, the Open Systems Foundation, etc. But none of them was promoting Open Source/Free software. The genius in coining the term Open Source Software was probably in hijacking the word “open” – which was already flung around liberally by all the big players in the Unix world.

  3. So the extensionalities of “Queen of Canada” and “Queen of England” are the same.

    As I understand it, this is technically wrong, because the way this bit of the Commonwealth monarchy works is crazier than you could possibly imagine. While the Queen is in residence within the borders of Canada, this is true; but when the human being who happens to be Queen is not there, the Queen-in-Parliament (but not the other aspects, e.g. the Queen-in-Right, Queen-on-the-Bench, etc) vests in the Governor-General, though since the Governor-General has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Queen-in-Right (IIRC) this has no actual effect on anything. It’s not clear to me what the effect of the Canadian crown being split into eleven parts (one federal, ten state) has on all of this, or if anyone could even tell. It’s also not clear to me whether this flips the instant the Queen gets on a plane or whatever or whether it happens when she passes beyond the borders, or, indeed, if anyone would ever care. It’s all kind of barmy — but most of the time the portion of the Crown of Canada that relates to the passage of laws in particular is split among two people, one of whom has sworn allegiance to the other.

    (This is, I think, particular to Canada: other realms do it in different ways, though in every case the Queen of each Realm is legally distinct and merely happens to be the same person in each case.)

    (Disclaimer: neither lawyer nor Canadian, just interested in crusty legal nuttiness, and Commonwealth monarchical law and custom is so very full of this.)

    1. Oh, thanks, this is very interesting! I do love this kind of relative silliness around royalty that we still keep around.

      And somehow, only until now did I come across this comment that had gotten stuck in the spam filter for a long time. Sorry for the long delay in replying!

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