Open Source Software: What is it?


(Note: This is post 1 of a multi-part series about Open Source Software (OSS), and what the idea of Open Sourcing means economically.)

What is Open Source Software, and why is it such a big deal? It’s something that shady characters, cyberpunks, and complete nerds do to fill their time because they have not discovered economics, right? It’s all about basements lit only by one computer screen, cans of red bull littering the floor, isn’t it? No, not really. Not by a long shot.

OSS refers to a body of software that meets the following 10 criterion as defined by the Open Source Initiative:

1- Free Redistribution: Once you have obtained the software legally, it is yours. You own it completely. You can destroy it, use it, or even make thousands of copies and give them away. You can make money off the software or give it away for free. It does not matter. You own the software.

2- Source Code: The source code for the software must be available for a low cost, preferably free. This point is powerful, because it allows access to the raw code written to create the program.

3- Derived Works: Once you have the source code, you are free to develop the code however you so desire. You can add or subtract anything you want and redistribute it under the same license.

4- Integrity of Author’s Work: The only exception the third rule is that you might not be able to call it by the same name. If the original author is trying to protect the reputation of his program or his coding ability, he can require you to rename your new program.

5- No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups: An Open Source license applies equally to everybody. No exceptions.

6- No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor: The author cannot stop someone from using the code/program for purposes he does not agree with, even if the user is a competitor on the market. So, the author cannot stop you from using his code to build a better product and drive him out of competition. Also, the author cannot stop you from using his code/program to perpetrate crimes. His work is freely available to all takers.

7- Distribution of License: Whatever license the author uses on his work must be released with the code/program.

8- License Must Not Be Specific to a Product: The code/program stands on its own and cannot be forced to be part of a specific product or group of programs. You have the same rights to use the software, no matter where you use it.

9- License Must Not Restrict Other Software: The license cannot require that other software on the same “medium” fit any specific requirement. For example, an author cannot require that the other programs on your computer be open source as well.

10- Technology Neutral: The license cannot require that you use a specific type of technology or use a given technology in a certain way. If you can use the code somewhere, no matter the technology, you are free to use it.

Why, though, is OSS important? First, OSS is worth knowing about because it is everywhere. More than half of the internet is run by machines with Open Source operating systems like GNU/Linux with Open Source web servers like Apache. Furthermore, somewhere between 60-80% of all email is processed by OSS running on Open Source operating systems. Aside from the internet, it is estimated that tens of millions of people use an Open Source operating system at home every day. In any case, it is good to know about OSS simply because it supports quite a bit of the computing you do every day.

More importantly, OSS is important because it is about freedom. The ten requirements of an Open Source license provide absolute freedom for you to do whatever you want with the code. Unlike software from proprietary vendors like Apple or Microsoft, you actually own the code and the program. You are not merely licensing it from someone who can revoke the license or require payment for an extra copy. OSS provides complete freedom to use the code in any way you see fit. That fact is one of the primary reasons I will continue to explore OSS in the weeks to come. It is another way that allows us to regain liberty that is very sneakily taken away from us every time we buy (read: license) software from a closed-source company.

Continue to post 2.

<>< Josh Rule : : 2008 MCPP Intern

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One thought on “Open Source Software: What is it?

  1. Pingback: Open Source Software: Wealth vs. Money « Trying Liberty

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