Is it Open Source?

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Tim O'Reilly
Aug. 25, 2000 05:31 PM

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On Davenet, Dave Winer asks:

In April 1997 I needed handle-based C code to do base64 encoding and decoding. I looked around the net and didn't find what I needed. So I created the code, using the stuff I found as a starting point. I tested the new code to be sure it interoperated with previous implementations.

Then I released the source code. No license agreement. Also no restrictions on what anyone could do with it.

Now here's the question.

Is this open source?

I'm not on the OSI board, which controls the "official" use of the term open source, but I believe that even the most ardent advocates would say that this is open source. Legally, it's likely that no copyright statement at all still means that it's copyright by its author, and there are possibilities that some new license could be applied. But for practical purposes, publication with no license and no copyright and the kind of intent shown on the web page suggests to me that the code is implicitly in the public domain. (Let a lawyer comment otherwise.) Public domain meets the tests of the Open Source Definition (OSD).

The hierarchy goes something like this:

  • Public domain (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee's original CERN server and browser)
  • University-style Licenses (Berkeley, Apache, X): just give us credit
  • GPL: You have to extend the same privileges to everyone else as you received
  • Mishegas of approved corporate licenses: some restrictions that still squeak by the OSD.

But frankly, I've always believed that open source is really about way more than licenses. I've never been comfortable with the idea that the OSD captures the entire power of the movement. For me, "open source" in the broader sense means any system in which open access to code lowers the barriers to entry into the market.

I look at the original AT&T license for UNIX, and while it had bad downstream consequences (AT&T could by license stop the open source party from continuing), the fact was that everything we care about in open source was there, except the license! A license is a protection for open source behavior, not a cause of it. I believe that you can have open source *behavior* under a license that might explicitly forbid it.

Case in point: HTML. Sociologically, it has every attribute of open source. We all learned to code web pages by looking at features we liked in other pages, and copying them, sometimes literally, by cut and paste. HTML and view source are an open source architecture, even though no one ever thought to talk licenses about it. What's the implied license on the HTML code behind a page that doesn't have a copyright notice? Does anyone know? Even if the page say copyright JoeBlow, does it change the social behavior? No. Because it's socially acceptable to look over someone's shoulder and copy their HTML.

I'm interested in the drivers of a class of behaviors that we have labeled open source. I'm not as big a fan of defining the label as some kind of boundary, and then working back from it to see what fits in the box. Reality has a way of never fitting all that well into the boxes we make for them. I use "open source" as a pointer, just like I use "blue" and "green" as pointers. I bet a lot of people have had trouble deciding whether a certain blue-green color falls on the blue side of the line or the green one, and might even call it differently depending on the light.

There are nominalists and there are absolutists. I'm with the nominalists.

So yes, I'm with you: open source IS bigger than people think. It's an attitude, not a license.

P.S. I also like to think that open source is about architecture and about documentation! I sometimes think that UNIX pipe and filter architecture and the accompanying man pages was as important to the "open sourceish" nature of the early UNIX work as any license could have been. Things were structured and documented at an atomic level that meant you could take pieces out and replace them even if you didn't modify them. What if every DLL in Windows had its function and its interfaces documented in such a way that we knew how they fit together and which pieces could be replaced easily?

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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