At the heart is a license
Open source has been around for years. In fact, decades. One of the first instances of it was actually called Free Software (free as in freedom). With a history of being attached to freedom, it's easy to imagine that there could be strong ties to societal impacts and models - that said - free software / open source. Many people consider both names equivalent; to the point where a special term was coined: FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software). Originally the term Free Software referred to the four essential freedoms that its license should give you. (They are detailed here and on the Free Software Foundation's web site.)
Here is a brief summary:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
This enables you to take the free software and use it for whatever you want to do with it. In particular, a free software license cannot restrict you from using the software governed by it in any way. Anybody can use the material for whatever they want, however they want and where ever they want.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Source code of the software should be accessible with practical conditions. You should not have the need to pay. You might be asked to pay for media, if you request source to be sent to you on a CD or USB key, but usually companies provide some website with a download link for that. For example, Linksys provides a simply accessible site dedicated to GPL licensed source code downloads. You are not only allowed to study the code, but modify it, tweak it, add features you want to it, or even remove features you don't want, from it… possibly also patch bugs you find in it. But you have to follow the rules - in particular regarding attribution of the original works. All these specific rules are listed in the license that the source code comes with.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Free software also comes with the right to redistribute copies of the original works or even modified versions of it (conditions for that will be detailed in the license that comes with the software, and may vary depending on the specific license). This freedom is often the cause of confusion about the price of the free software. If someone can redistribute copies of it to a community, then it's tricky to try to charge people for it. People might buy it, but then give copies of the same to everybody else. So in general, free software doesn't come with an RTU (Right to Use) type of pricing… but there are other business models that work well for open source.
If you want to know a bit more about open source licenses and business models, you could refer to this presentation that was conducted for MaGIC Academy in Malaysia some time ago.
These freedoms are representative of an ideal. A model created to propose a society that is focused around community and sharing.
In more recent years, a new name has come up called the Open Source Software. It's defined by an organisation called the Open Source Initiative. The general idea is the same. Freedom to do lots of things with the software, and it actually englobes the four freedoms of the Free Software Foundation, but extends the definition to ten points:
- Free Redistribution
- Source Code
- Derived Works
- Integrity of The Author's Source Code
- No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
- No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
- Distribution of License
- License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
- License Must Not Restrict Other Software
- License Must Be Technology-Neutral
As you can see, these points are very similar, as they could be bucketed into the four freedoms of the FSF. However, they are interesting as they are formulated also as obligations - "License must...". And indeed, if you are going to use open source software in your own development, you may have freedom to do that, but you do have obligations like distributing the license - so that there is no doubt how the source code is governed, or others.
(From now on, I will interchangeably use the terms Free Software, Open Source, or FLOSS. I will most likely mix casing versions and all lower case versions. When I use Open Source and Free Software with capitals, I'm referring to the actual definition from the OSI. If I use the all lower case names, I'm referring to the concept... And if I use FLOSS, well, it's the same as open source or free software.)
Both the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative list various licenses that they have examined and confirmed they match the FLOSS definition. FSF tends to have a bias towards their own license called the GPL (GNU General Public License) and position every other license in perspective to it. The GPL is often considered a "viral" license as it imposes that if you build a project by adding new code to an already GPL licensed code base, you have to publish that project in a license compatible with the GPL. Other licenses are more flexible, like the BSD license which doesn't impose that kind of requirement.
The links above are a great source of information if you want to check if a software you are using is FLOSS without having to ask a lawyer to examine the license. If it's on one of those pages, it's FLOSS. These pages are also very useful if you want to pick a license for a software project you are creating. As a suggestion, it's much simpler, better, more efficient, to pick one of these licenses than invent one of your own.
In our next part, we will cover things like economical impact of open source on society.