Open Sourcing for #ioe12

Open Source logos by grok_codeOpen Source: of or relating to or being computer software for which the source code is freely available.

I don’t develop software and I don’t install software (apart from on my own machine with the click of a button) but the concept of open source is one I feel fairly at home with. A few years back I ran a couple of Creative Commons workshops (introducing people to the concept) and I got Randy Metcalfe, former manager of OSS Watch, along for support. Randy talked about the copyleft principle while I concentrated on the CC licences.

OSS Watch was launched in 2003. Since then it has done a fantastic job of supporting (they say they are not an advocacy group) the use of open source licences and helping institutions and projects who are using or developing free and open source software. JISC often mandates use of open source licences on software developed using its funding. Open source is no longer that scary, techy thing it used to be.

The open source module on the Introduction to Openness in Education course includes many of the key pieces of work on open source including the seminal work the Cathedral and the Bazaar.

The Revolution OS video gives the history of open source and an introduction to the ideology behind it (one of hacking, activism, relinquishing of control, moving away from ownership etc.) and is definitely worth a watch. Some key interviews from open source advocates including:

  • Richard Stallman – Software freedom activist, pioneer of copyleft.
  • Eric Raymond – Author of the Cathedral and the Bazaar, co-founded of the Open Source Initiative (OSI).
  • Linus Torvalds – Developer of the Linux Operating System.
  • Bruce Perens – Co-founded of the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

I also enjoyed the “Open Minds, Open Source” essay by Eric Raymond which is condensed overview of the ideology and history. It explains the connections between open source and science fiction:

SF taught me to think of people and cultures as adaptive machines. SF also taught me that the universe doesn’t respect the neat little compartments human beings like to chop their knowledge into.

A few key definitions:

  • Open source – Open source involves using decentralized peer networks for verifying solutions to complex problems. Source refers to source code, programmers publish a programme’s source code for active peer review by other programmers. It involves collaborative software development resulting in software released under open licences.
  • Code secrecy – An approach used by companies for economic reasons, customers are locked in to use of code and support from a company when they cannot access the code themselves.
  • Closed source – The opposite to open source!
  • Brooks’s Law – Axiom of software engineering which observes that “adding more programmers to a late software project makes it later.” Led to isolated teams and code secrecy in commercial software production.
  • Hacker vs Cracker – Hackers build things, crackers break them!
  • GNU – GNU’s not UNIX (a recursive acronym) – an operating system similar to Unix, developed by the GNU project.
  • Linux – Operating system developed by collaborators based on Unix.

The Annotated Open Source Definition is useful for accurate definitions and gives the full distribution terms of open-source software. It must comply with the following criteria:

  1. Free Redistribution
  2. Source Code must be available
  3. Derived Works must be allowed
  4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code must be shown
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor – the software can be used for commercial gain
  7. Distribution of License – the rights are redistributed to all additional parties.
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

The Cory Doctrow video gives a real insight into the mindset behind the commercial companies and the pointlessness of their attempts to control the current digital copyright situation.

Copying will only get easier. Your grandchildren will turn to you around the Christmas table and say ‘tell us again grandma about when it was hard to copy things in 2011, when you couldn’t get a drive the size of your finger nail to hold every song ever recorded’

The main essence of Doctrow’s talk is that the powers that be are waging a war on general computation, he talks about SOPA and other related regulation.

A feeling that surfaced when reading and viewing the recommended resources is how ‘open’ was originally very much a state of mind and part of a wider social and political movement. As Eric Raymond puts it in the Open Minds, Open Source essay “OS raises some fundamental questions about not just the technological machinery of our computers but the social, economic and political machinery that surrounds software development“.

The question this then leads me to ask is: is it still about open minds? Do the people who use open source software and openly licensed materials care about the ideology behind their resources? The quote that is often banded about is that to understand the concept of open source you should think of “‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’“. Are people these days just after their free beer and unaware of the cost behind it? Something I’d like to explore more in future modules.

A final thought: Raymond explores the economic analogy in his articles and observes that “planned systems complexify until they collapse of their own weight.” I’m a practical person so simplifying systems appeals to me. A big battle I often fight in my working life is the esoteric nature of many of the areas I work in. I’ve heard “the people we want to listen to us aren’t interested” said many a time, the answer I often want to give is “because you aren’t saying it in a way that interests them, just a way that interests you“. Is openness a way to move away from this, to simplify systems by collaborative working? Something to chew on…