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Stop Calling Everything "Open Source": What "Open Source" Really Means

"Open source" is an exciting concept in the world of software and beyond. But it shouldn't be applied to contexts where it makes no sense.

What does open source mean? That's an increasingly tough question to answer because the term is now being applied everywhere and to everything -- which is not good.

To understand why open source is losing its meaning, you have to start by tracing the origins of the phrase.

Open source was a term originally used in the intelligence community. It had nothing to do with software.

Then, in 1998, a group of people who advocated the free sharing of software source code coined the term open source software. They did so primarily because they sought an alternative to free software, the term that was initially used to describe software whose source code was freely available.

For political reasons not worth discussing here, some people today continue to prefer the term free software. By and large, however, open source software has become the de facto way to describe software with freely redistributable source code.

The Complex Meaning of Open Source

Over the past two decades, the meaning of open source has become complicated.

This is true even when people talk about open source software. The terms of open source software licenses vary widely, and, by extension, so do the ways in which a software program that is described as open source can be shared.

As a result, when you hear the term open source software, there is some ambiguity regarding what is being discussed. You might be talking about software like Linux, which is governed by the GNU General Public License (GPL)'s rather strict redistribution terms. Or you could be discussing programs like X Windows, which is licensed under very liberal terms.

Open Source beyond Software

The variation within the meaning of open source software is only one reason why the meaning of open source has become hard to pin down in recent years.

The bigger issue is that open source is now being applied to myriad other realms, which have nothing to do with software.

We now talk about open source music, open source art, open source hardware and even open source food and sofas (yes, your sofa can now be open source).

In some cases, it makes sense to apply the open source label to products that are not software. If users can participate in the creation, modification and redistribution of a product, then it qualifies as open source.

In other cases, however, the term is misused.

The types of misuse fall into three main categories:

  1. Referring to a product that is free for anyone to use, but cannot be modified. For example, Archive.org has an "open source audio" page (that's what the URL calls it, at least). The audio files there are free for anyone to download and use in almost any way they like, including incorporating them into a larger product. However, the audio files aren't available in a way that makes it practical for users to modify them. They are an example of a product that is free of cost and freely redistributable, but not extendable or modifiable by third parties.
  2. Saying open source when you really mean customizable. Ikea's so-called open source sofa falls into this category. People who want to buy the sofa can customize it before Ikea sends it to them. But the end product is not designed to be modified or redistributed by the user. A truly open source sofa would be one that end users could take apart, reassemble and extend when they got it home -- and share it with their friends, too, if they want. The open source model does not really work for sofas.
  3. Using open source as a shorthand for crowd-sourced or collaborativeThis project is an example. It was a crowd-sourced effort to collect information about debt associated with graduate school in a Google Sheet. Many people contributed, and the results are available for anyone to reuse. But users aren't going to modify the information in the database -- that would undercut its purpose. They may add to it, but adding more to something that already exists without modifying any of the existing parts is not an open source endeavor. You could write a plugin for a closed-source software program without touching the program itself just as easily as you could write a plugin for an open source platform.

When open source is used in one of these ways, its meaning degrades.

Conclusion

Open source is one of the most important ideas today in the world of IT and beyond.

If open source is going to remain so influential, however, it needs to be used only in contexts where it truly makes sense. If what you really to say is free of cost, customizable or collaborative, don't say open source. Open source software and other open source entities usually have these qualities, but they have others, too.

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