Open Source Software

Wikipedia broadly defines open source software as " the source code of software that is made available to the general public with either relaxed or non-existent intellectual property restrictions". In contrast to proprietary software, where companies and/or individual own rights and severely limit access to software source code, open source programs are designed for users to collaborate and improve existing software.

"The Definition" of Open Source

The Open Source Initiative provides a lengthy, multi-part definition to open source software. Its components include the following:
  • Free distribution: No royalties or fees are involved.
  • Source code: This code must be readily available.
  • Derived works: License must allow modifications and derivatives of the original work.
  • Integrity of the author's source code: The license must explicitly allow others to distribute modified code.
  • No discrimination against persons or groups: All users share equal ground.
  • No discrimination against fields of endeavor: Software can be used in a variety of fields (business, education, etc.)
  • Distribution of license: The rights of the original license apply to all. No further licenses are necessary.
  • License must not be specific to a product: If parts of a licensed program are used in another allowed project, no additional licenses are necessary.
  • License must not restrict other software: Licensed software can not be tied to restricted software.
  • License must be technology-neutral: Open source software can not be mated to only a certain technology.

The Beginnings of Open Source:

Richard Stallman launched the GNU project in 1984 to develop a Unix style operating system that would be free software for anyone's use. In 1985 the Free Software Foundation was formed to promote the free exchange, modification, and distribution of software. The GNU project met one of its goals of a Unix style operating system when in 1991 Linus Torvalds provided the operating system kernel known as Linux.

Where Open Source Took Off: Netscape --> Mozilla

Many experts point to 1998 as the year Open Source became a true buzzword in the computer world. Early that year, several Netscape executives and other consultants decided to open the source code of the company's flagship Internet browser Navigator. The browser's source code was released as Mozilla, and over the past decade it has enjoyed increasing success. Today, the FireFox browser, another open source project based on Mozilla (and Navigator) owns almost 31% of the browser market, according to

Negativity Regarding Open Source

Intellectual property Rights

Intellectual property Right protection under an Open Source license (there are several versions) is an infinite source of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) for several reasons. First is the myth that intellectual property is unprotected when, in fact, the intellectual property rights of original works are protected. Software distributed under an Open Source License typically must include source code and it is tempting to use that code as a template or stating point for new work. Under terms of the GNU Public License (GPL), this "new work" is regarded as derivative and therefore covered by the GPL if it is distributed. To over simplify, you cannot simply take another programmers work and sell it as your own. Work based on Open Source code is itself Open Source and cannot be sold, however, a derivative work that is not distributed need not be released as Open Source.

Similarly, developing an application on a system running open source software does not make the new application open source. Provided the application is not a derivative work, you are free to sell it, distribute it or give it away as you please.

There have been accusations of copyright infringement and code theft, most notably by SCO. Proof has been slow in coming, and several claims have been rejected by the courts, but it has been a long and expensive piece of litigation. Recently, a deal was struck between Microsoft and Novell to further integrate features of their competing operating systems (Microsoft Windows and Novell SUSE Linux) and provide a degree of two way indemnification to protect Novell and Microsoft products from accusations of infringement.

"Viral Code"

This has also led to fears that code governed by terms of the GPL would be discovered in commercial software and force the release of source code for the entire product. For example, if it were proven that a software company had used a TCP/IP network stack, covered by GPL, in their operating system, it was feared this would force that company to release the source code for their entire operating system. Because everyone is concerned about copy right infringement, it is more likely that the company in question would be required to remediate the offending code, or release source code for the derivative program only, not the entire operating system.

Dead Projects

Participation in most Open Source projects, whether by corporations or individuals is voluntary, and projects are sometimes abandoned or reduced to a very slow development cycle. In such cases, the user can live with the application as it is, change it themselves, or move to another product. This also happens with commercial software, except the user usually does not have the source code, so does not have the option of changing it themselves. If the user lacks the skill or time to assume the task, having the source code does not help.

If a given open source application has a large number of contributors and users that are actively pursuing solutions to problems as they are encountered then that open source solution could be far superior to an equivalent commercial application. If an open source application had a small number of users or was written for a narrow range of users it is entirely possible that the end-user would spend more time and money trying to work through problems with the application than if they had simply bought and paid for a licensed application.

Positives Regarding Open Source

David Wheeler reports in his paper "Why Open Source Software/Free Software? Look at the Numbers!" that Open Source software is a major player in servicing the World Wide Web. In 2004, Apache webserving software accounted for 68.7% of the webserving market counting active sites. "GNU/Linux is the #2 web serving OS on the public Internet (counting by physical machine), according to Netraft surveying March and June 2001." (Wheeler, 2004) Wheeler also notes that a 2003 survey has placed PHP (open source software) as the #1 server-side scripting language used to create dynamic web pages, used by over 24% of the sites on the Internet.

One benefit of Open Source software is that distributions can be obtained at very low cost and even free. The idea of Free Software Foundation is that the code remain open and available to as many people as possible.


BBC news dedicated to Free Open Source Software (FOSS):
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