After 10 years: What is Open Source?
In our earlier article, "Facts and Friction on Open Source and Free Software" we have explained where "Open Source" is coming from and what is its relation to Free Software and the Free Software Foundation that represents it. One of the points made was that the term Open Source deliberately de-emphasized a certain aspect of what defines Free Software as originally specified by the FSF in order to make Free Software, albeit under the new term, better appeal to the business world.
A lot of the criticism to the new term came, obviously, from the Free Software Foundation and the movement that aligns with it, as they believed (and continue to believe) it is wrong to hide one of the most important things that make Free Software what it is, the freedom that goes with it and which is the sole reason for which the Free Software movement started. They also say that the term, despite there being an Open Source Definition, would in minds of many simply mean the availability of the source code and not much more than that.
Well, enter 2007, almost ten years after the Open Source term was coined. Read the appeal that the president of the OSI, Michael Tiemann recently posted, aptly titled: "Will The Real Open Source CRM Please Stand Up?".
In it, Mr Tiemann expresses concerns regarding the abuse of the term "Open Source" by applying it to the products which do not adhere to the Open Source Definition and are usually merely allowing access to the source code. For a while it seems it wasn't much trouble for the OSI to deal with this issue, but with the continued proliferation and increased attractiveness of this buzzword, further troubles began:
Starting around 2006, the term open source came under attack from two new and unanticipated directions: the first was from vendors who claimed that they have every bit as much right to define the term as does the OSI, and the second was from vendors who claimed that their license was actually faithful to the Open Source Definition (OSD), and that the OSI board was merely being obtuse (or worse) in not recognizing that fact.
The trouble is, OSI doesn't really have a trademark nor a service mark on the term. They are merely the ones who coined it the first, but apparently they don't have a legal standing on which they could enforce the proper use of the term. So in a legal sense, everybody indeed does have the right to apply it per their own judgement, which is often taking the meaning of the term literally: open source code; the availability of the source code, nothing more. These two comments to the Tiemanns very post shed some light on that issue.
Tiemann argues, however, by comparing the term "Open Source" with "Open Standards" saying that the term "Open Standards" "came into common use--and began to be adopted in procurement legislation by sovereign governments--before there was any objective definition of the term" posing that "Open Source" could be socially enforced without using the trademark mechanisms in a similar way "Open Standards" is. In addition he argues that making "Open Source" a trademark would make things difficult for governments who make new "Open Source" related legislations.
While this may be a valid point there still remains a problem which may prove to be quite difficult for OSI to resolve, and that is the popular perception of the term. If it is just too deeply associated with the shallow view of it being merely software with the freely available source code, will OSI ever succeed at changing this perception, en masse, to the full set of values that are supposed to define "Open Source"? In addition, how does this make Open Source Initiative look in light of the fact that they deliberately coined a term which would hide a certain set of values in favor of the supposedly more attractive part, basically deliberately showing the public only a part of the bigger picture of what Free Software really is about?
In other words, it may be that the Open Source Initiative, today, is facing a problem that was simply inevitable because of the very nature of what Open Source Initiative is. They wanted to attract businesses to Free Software by coining a term which emphasizes only a part of what Free Software actually is, but they succeeded at attracting businesses to a buzzword more than to a whole set of values that they are now trying to put back forth.
In other words OSI is now forced to act more similarly to the Free Software Foundation, rigorously explaining what Free Software is all about and making a strict and critical connection between "free" and "freedom", Free Software and the Free Software Definition. One therefore has to wonder what, then, was a point of the Open Source Initiative, if it would in this regard end up doing the same thing FSF is doing?
Perhaps it is just another sanctuary, with or without a meaningful name, to those who oddly and ironically enough consider themselves "apolitical" or just slightly allergic to Richard Stallman, choosing to be deliberately ignorant towards the annoyance (sic) that the tiring talk of freedom appears to present them.
I would like to find some other purpose to acknowledge for the Open Source Initiative, but I am hard pressed. I don't believe it was ever needed for business adoption of Free Software and I believe it merely created divisions and complications. While OSI is fiddling with the problem of license proliferation and the enforcement of proper use of their term, FSF is busy drafting a license which is actually advancing the cause of Free Software in the marketplace (bouncing Microsoft's less-than-friendly strategies), organizing numerous freedom campaigns (anti-DRM, anti-Vista, for free file formats etc.) and consequently solidifying the increasing relevancy that this movement is having to the world.
So, considering what we have seen and what the OSI is currently doing, the question begs to be asked. After 10 years, do we really need Open Source or can we get back to the real issues at stake, that being software freedom?