Philosophy of Open Source


The purpose of this document is to explain the philosophy behind Open Source. It will first examine the definition of the term, then reveal its history, and finally, explore how the philosophy is affecting all areas of society – not just the information technology world. At the end of this document is a bibliography, allowing you to continue to research this fascinating, and increasing more significant topic, if you wish.

So, what exactly is Open Source?

Although, as suggested in the introduction, open source philosophies can be applied to all areas of society, when first learning about this topic it is probably easiest to think about it in terms of computer software. Chances are – although in the future this may no longer be the case – you are viewing this website using a personal computer running an operating system such as Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s Mac OS. Both are examples of proprietary systems. By proprietary, I mean to say that all the code hidden behind the software (the ones and zeros) are not accessible by people outside of the company that owns it. For most major commercial companies (such as Adobe and Sony), their software’s source code is considered to be a trade secret, and access to this code by third parties would normally mean that one would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement and other legally binding papers (Source: Wikipedia 2006). So, simply put, your average computer programmer simply does not have the ability to modify propriety software in its entirety without permission from the owner.

For example, Microsoft does not allow anyone to view the guts of its Windows operating system, but instead gives programmers the ability to use API calls that allowing them to access specific portions of the proprietary code and make use of them; however no modification can take place (Source: Moylan 2006). This means that a programmer can get the job done and Microsoft continues to have complete control over their creation. On the face of it, everyone wins. However it does limit the programmer’s creativity, and makes his or her life a lot harder.

Open Source software on the other hand, upholds the belief that the source code of software should be available to anyone to easily view, alter, enhance and re-distribute any portion of that code without paying for it (Source: Moylan 2006). For example, with an Open Source operating system, such as Linux, if you decide you don’t like the way the system handles something and you have a programming background, you can modify any aspect of the computer software to suit your own personal needs. If you don’t like the way a button looks, or the way a menu opens – then feel free to tweak the code. You can add, edit, and destroy to your hearts content.

Still confused? Steve Weber, in his book ‘The Success of Open Source’ uses a simple analogy to Coca-Cola to explain the difference between open source and proprietary products. He explains that when you purchase a can of Coke, you are allowed to drink it, and you are also given a generic and vague list of ingredients on the side of the can. But Cola-Cola do not tell you the specifics – they don’t give you the complete recipe. Their secret formula is exactly that, secret – locked in a vault somewhere, with one a few people privileged enough to know what makes up the addictive syrup. Purchasing a can of coke does not give you the right to learn the secret. This is exactly the same with commercial software. Purchasing a copy of Microsoft Windows does not give you the right to the source code (i.e. the recipe that tells you exactly how the program was made).

Open Source projects are usually community-based projects built by programmers who donate their time and expertise to create a product that the marketplace is in need of, regardless of whether or not there is a possibility of financial gain (Source: Moylan 2006). In fact, whole virtual communities have been established where geeks worldwide can work together to create software that will hopefully make their lives easier or just more fun. For example, (at the time of writing) has 128,465 registered projects, and 1,382,867 registered users. All these people work together to create software that anyone, anywhere can modify and customise to suit their personal desires. Open source is about freedom and liberty – not about price.

The Definition of Open Source

To determine whether something can be considered “open source” or not, the Open Source Initiative developed a definition based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines, written and adapted – for the most part – by Bruce Perens (Source: OSI 2006). The Ten Commandments that he came up with are as follows:

  1. Free Redistribution
  2. Freely Obtainable Source Code
  3. Derived Works
  4. Integrity of the Author’s Source Code
  5. No Discrimination against Persons or Groups
  6. No Discrimination against Fields of Endeavour
  7. Distribution of License
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

Take for example a computer program license. For the license to be considered open source, the program must be able to be given away or sold without restraint. The source code must be freely obtainable (either it should come with the program, or available on the Internet for free download). End users must be allowed to redistribute any modifications they make (however depending on the license, some modifications must be redistributed as patches, as to not interfere with the original code). The program should not discriminate against individuals or corporations (i.e. Bill Gates has just as much right to open source software as anyone else). The appropriate license should be travel with the program (or again, be available on the Internet). The program cannot be licensed only as part of a larger distribution but can be distributed with other software that is not considered open source. And finally, the license must not contain any medium specific terms of accepting the license agreement (i.e. it can’t state “to agree to this license click the ‘OK’ button on such-and-such webpage – as websites may become obsolete in the future).

The History of Open Source

Open Source philosophy has been around for a very long time. There are books dedicated to its history, so I will not go into too much detail, as this is not the focus of this document. But basically, it started with hackers such as Richard Stallman, spending huge amounts of time writing software, but instead of selling it for financial gain they wanted to share their work with fellow users (Source: Kidd 2006). They wanted people to learn from what they had made, and improve upon it. Out of respect, any changes that someone makes should be given back to the hacker community, so everyone can learn more from the additions, therefore improving their skills. This sharing of ones ideas and creation was purely based on good moral principles – money, fame and glory did not come into the equation.

The actual term, “open source” however first surfaced on the 3rd of February 1998, during a strategy session in California, after Netscape (creators of an internet browser called Netscape Navigator – which sparked the browser wars with Microsoft in the 90’s), decided to release the code to their software to the world (Source: OSI 2006). They decided that the term “free software” was too confrontational, and “open source” was the best thing they could come up with at the time. So although open source philosophy has existed for many, many years (as stated previously, the open source definition is based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines), it was only in 1998 that it became a recognisable term.

Popular Open Source Examples

Even though you may be unaware of it, chances are you make use of open source technology every day. To get you thinking, here are two of the more popular open source examples:

At the time of writing Mozilla Firefox is currently one of the most popular open source software projects going around. With features such as tabbed browsers, integrated search, live bookmarks and a generally faster user experience, it is a lot more feature packed and friendly than proprietary products such as Internet Explorer. Despite the fact that Microsoft and Apple have multimillion dollar development budgets, their browser software is currently being beaten by something developed by the people.

Wikipedia, an open source encyclopaedia is also taking the World Wide Web by storm. Containing over five million articles in a large number of languages, the site is claimed to be one of the top twenty most visited sites on the Internet (Source: Alexa Internet 2006). Anyone can modify the content on Wikipedia, which is one of the key ingredients to its success.

Other Markets…

The open source philosophy has grown across a large amount of different markets – not just the computer industry. For example, in the agriculture industry, open source beer has been created, such as Vores Øl and Free Beer 3.0. The recipes for both of these beers are freely available on the Internet, released under a Creative Commons License. In the health world, organisations such as the Tropical Disease Initiative have been founded investigating open source pharmaceutical development. Content is also a big area, with websites such as Wikipedia (an open source encyclopaedia) and Yellowikis (an open source version of the Yellow Pages) growing bigger and stronger every day. We have already discussed open source software in a fair degree of detail, but open source hardware is also existent. For example, the designs of microchips have been released under open source licensing agreements.


Blogging can also be considered open source, as people are contributing their time and expertise in areas in which they are often not compensated financially. When a blogger reports from a first-hand account, they are in effect “exposing source code” for other people to comment on, enhance and re-distribute (Source: Moylan 2006). The blogger can either take their blogs (their “source code”) and sell it, or promote it for free – just like with open source software. Incidentally, a lot of the web site software used on blogging sites is also open source, such as LifeType.

Society & Culture

Open Source technology is thought to be revolutionary because it promotes concepts of sharing and universal participation. Some believe that this revolution will take us back to the community based ideals of oral cultures, but the thing that puzzles most people about these organisations is that they are non-profitable. There has been a lot of thought put into why these people volunteer their time to set up such outlets and to contribute their information property without any economic remuneration. Demos, “the think tank for everyday democracy”, believe that we are experiencing a historic shift from the rise of the professional in the late 20th Century to a new phenomenon of people “pursuing amateur activities”, calling this the “Pro-Am Revolution” (Source: Demos 2006). It is believed that this so-called revolution has the potential to strengthen the democratic world by pushing “power to the edges” and to help potential new organisations and leadership emerge through the incubation of this “mega community”.  Goetz likens Open Source to an “ant colony” and believes that “the collective intelligence of the network supersedes any single contributor” (Source: Goetz 2003).

Open source principles have also affected other areas of society and culture, such as politics (i.e. open and collaborative formation of public policy) and journalism (i.e. on-line non-for-profit journalism). Open Source Filmmaking is also starting to gain momentum. One example is Elephants Dream, an animated film created only using open source software, with all the production files available for free download. This means anyone can download and modify the film, distribute it and share their updated version to the internet community.

Open Source Problems/Issues

Like anything, open source does not come without its problems. Luckily though, a lot of the issues of the past are slowly becoming less relevant in more recent times. Compatibility and comparability were once the main topics of conversations when talking about open source, but now some open source technology has become so advanced that it is almost completely compatible and comparable with its proprietary equivalents (for example, with software like WINE, you can run a large portion of Windows-based software on a Linux-based system; you can also open Microsoft Word documents in Open Office).

However there are issues with open source licensing. The main issues that arise are that of ownership. Technically and legally speaking, current open source licenses do not clearly define ownership rights, and therefore there is a possibility that someone could use the open source agreements to take advantage of others peoples hard work, and not give back to the community.

There are also problems with the actual term “open source”. Sometimes the term is used to describe software whose source code is visible, but there are limitations on what can be done with it. For example, you may be able to view the source code, but you may not be allowed to modify it and redistribute it. There is also some confusion between open source software and free software.


Open source philosophy is changing the way people think about technology and society. A couple of years ago you had to fork out a lot of money to get a good graphics editing computer program (such as Adobe Photoshop). Now you can just download a free version of GIMP. You can even modify its source code to make it better, or simply different, if you feel so inclined. Collaborative open source software projects such as Linux and Apache (a web server package) have demonstrated that a large and complex system of code can be built, maintained, developed and extended in a non-proprietary environment (Source: Weber 2004, p. 2). Outside of the computer world, people have created open source beer and cola. Vast amounts of informative content are being release as open source on sites such as Wikipedia. Blogging is becoming a household term, with people globally sharing their views and thoughts for free to anyone who wants to listen, watch or read. Even open source pharmaceutical development is on the horizon.

Despite the fact that most people would have never predicted that a system based around people working for free would work, open source philosophy is making a big impact. The thing to understand is that open source embraces the philosophy of sharing, and because of this, concepts such as piracy are no longer a problem. You are encouraged to share and spread open source products as much as you like. You can copy and redistribute, even after modification. This provides users with a freedom that is not obtainable from proprietary products (as illustrated right throughout this document), and creates remarkable opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs around the world, especially in developing countries.


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