Open Source: Ubiquity or Ambiguity

Lately I have been hearing people use the term open source to refer to all sorts of things that are not really open source under the traditional definition. My favorite definition of open source comes from Bruce Perens in Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. His actual definition is several pages long, but the gist of it is this: Open source refers to software that is licensed to allow developers to view and / or modify the source code and redistribute the software without restriction.

I have heard people use open source to mean giving something away for free. This highlights an ambiguity in the English language: “free” can mean both gratis (no cost) and libre (freedom). In the case of open source, the second meaning, libre, is considered more important than whether or not someone charges for the software. Richard Stallman frequently explains free software as “free as in free speech, not free beer.”

Others have been using the term open source to refer to the development process, whether or not the end product is open source using the traditional definition. I ran across this issue recently in an article about how Malcolm Gladwell was using the term to refer to the process of making cookies. The open source development process is a bit different from the traditional, hierarchical development processes used in most corporations. This was best explained by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral & the Bazaar. However, it is not an entirely new concept, since it has roots in the academic development process where researchers collaborate, use each other’s research, and rely on peer review for quality control.

Getting back to the title of this blog, Open Source: Ubiquity or Ambiguity, I am torn between whether the ubiquity of the term open source is a good development meaning that we have finally moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream or whether the ambiguity inherent in how people use open source will dilute the meaning of the term.

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