Nat Torkington asked recently Is
“Open Source” Now Completely Meaningless. Certainly not; in fact,
there are several reasons this label is still valid and important.
I’m a pragmatist, so I’m not going to wave any flags or sing any
anthems to argue this, just point out what has worked and continues to
First of all, let’s be clear about what “open source” means. Software
is ‘open source’ when it is issued under a license compliant with the
Open Source Definition. Nothing any clueless or malevolant corporate
marketeer does can change that, because the term originated in the
open-source developer community and only we have the authority to
If this seems excessively prescriptive to some readers, consider what
would happen if a marketeer tried to redefine the term ‘electron’ to mean
‘proton’, or ‘big lump of green cheese’, or something. This would
instantly be recognized as absurd — physicists own that term, and only
they have the authority to redefine it.
Many of you know I’m a lexicographer as well as a hacker. I can tell
you what people who make dictionaries think about controversies like
this — that technical terms of art belong to the expert communities
that define them. Only we, the open-source community, get to
redefine ‘open source’.
And, occasionally, we do redefine it. OSI, the Open Source Initiative,
added a tenth clause to the OSD a few years back to deal with
click-wrap licensing. Right now, OSI is contemplating changes to deal
with badgeware licenses of the kind Nat complains about. In doing so,
OSI serves our entire community, and anyone get involved in the
process through its license-discuss list.
Normal evolution of the term within its defining community is one
thing. Accidental or deliberate abuse of the term is another, and
should be recognized and treated as such through education and
persuasion and the occasional smack upside the head. Abuse is not a
reason to abandon the term ‘open source’ any more than some fool
babbling about big lumps of green cheese would be a reason to abandon
the term ‘electron’.
Rather, abuse is a reason to defend and *explain* the term, so that
it will continue to have a useful meaning. OSI does that. Nat’s post
amounts to asking if the community should give up the effort. I say
certainly not. The only reason to abandon the term ‘open source’ would
be if it no longer served a useful purpose, and there are at least two
very large useful purposes that it does serve.
Do we really need a reminder of why lots of people jumped on it in
1998? We had an image problem with people outside our community,
especially businesses and governments. ‘Free software’ frightened
them away; I thought ‘open source’ might attract them. Those of us
who originally took the initiative in pushing it promoted ‘open
source’ as a cold-blooded exercise in rebranding, and
that worked; our community has ridden the label to levels of
acceptance we barely could have dreamed of nine years ago.
And guess what — ‘free software’ still has an image
problem, if only because the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has
responded to the success of the ‘open source’ label by taking a
position that is more purist, more territorial, and thus more
frightening. By doing this FSF has ironically ensured that ‘open
source’ would remain a necessary marketing hack in our community’s
relations with the rest of the world.
But I think the more important purpose of the term ‘open source’ is
not as a marketing hack but as a deliberately inclusive term for the
entirety of a history and a culture that transcends any of our narrow
internecine disputes about licensing and propaganda. Neither the FSF
nor the OSI is the axis of that history.
Our community didn’t spring full-blown from Linus Torvalds’s head, nor
from Richard Stallman’s, nor (perish the thought!) from mine. It
includes ‘free software’ developers, but also tribes like those around
BSD and X that are not centered on the GPL and rejected the term ‘free
software’ with all its ideological baggage. And it includes many more
to whom the GPL/anti-GPL dispute matters only a little if at all.
‘Open source’ also properly includes a lot of pre-FSF history like
the early IETF and the Tech Model Railroad Club. It’s now used
retrospectively by people who lived that history. I have gradually
come to understand that year zero of our movement was neither 1998
(the year OSI was founded) nor 1985 (the year FSF was founded). I now
think perhaps it was 1961, the year MIT took delivery of the first
PDP-1 and the earliest group of self-described ‘hackers’ coalesced
Adopting a more inclusive term for all this was good magic; it pulled
people together, helping them recognize common ground and a common way
of thinking and working. I think this (unanticipated) effect on the
hacker community’s conception of itself turned out to be as important
as the rebranding effects on the rest of the world, if not more so.
The flip side is that if not for ‘open source’, the community we
cherish would be a significantly poorer, smaller, and more fractured
place today. That’s reason enough to keep it.