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Is it Open Source?

by Tim O'Reilly
Aug. 25, 2000

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:

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., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. 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's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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