Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Social Change Is Finding Its Way into the Technology World

Wikipedia, Firefox, OpenOffice. All these programs have something in common. They are considered open source. It’s a phrase that may not mean much to many people, but is becoming increasingly popular in the computer programming community. The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing defines open source as “a method and philosophy for software licensing and distribution designed to encourage use and improvement of software written by volunteers by ensuring that anyone can copy the source code and modify it freely.” The Web site also defines source code as “the form in which a computer program is written by the programmer.” Put simply, the source code is what a programmer writes to make a program run, and open source is when program users are allowed to view and change the source code of that program.

On its Web site, the Open Source Initiative says it was founded in 1998 and is “a non-profit corporation formed to educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source.” The Web site also says open source isn’t just about being able to access a source code. It puts forth ten distribution criteria that a program must meet to be considered open source:

  1. Changed programs must be allowed to freely redistribute the software without royalty or fees to the original developer.
  2. Source code or means of easily obtaining the source code must be distributed with the program.
  3. Modified programs must be allowed to be distributed under the same terms as the original program.
  4. Authors can restrict changes to the original source code if they allow “patch files”, or additions to the source code.
  5. The program must be available to any person or group.
  6. The license can’t restrict to program from being used in a specific field of endeavor, like a business or research group.
  7. The license must extend to everyone the program is distributed to.
  8. The license has to apply to everything being distributed, not just one part.
  9. The license can’t put restrictions on outside software being distributed with the licensed software.
  10. Acceptance of the license must be available to users with various forms of technology.

The Open Source Initiative has its own list of approved licenses that meet these criteria. Open source has become so popular that even Microsoft sought the group’s approval on two new licenses, the Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL). And in the open source spirit, people posed questions about whether or not the proposed licenses met open source standards. On Friday, October 12th, 2007, the Open Source Initiative Board approved Microsoft’s submissions.

But this method of software development came out of a more philosophical approach to the use of computer programs, known as the Free Software Movement. The Free Software Foundation was established in 1985 and “is dedicated to promoting computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs,” according to its Web site. The group has developed a definition of free software that closely resembles the open source definition. On its Web site, the foundation says free software is not about price, but “users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.” It also says this refers to four kinds of freedom:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3).

While many of the ideas are the same between the two groups, the Free Software Foundation sees itself as more of a social movement; where as open source is more of practical movement. The foundation also developed its own licensing agreements in order to avoid having people modifying free software, and in turn, prohibiting revisions to the new program. The foundation titled their licensing method copyleft, and even made a symbol for it (image to the left). According to its Web site, the general idea behind copyleft is to make all programs free and require that all modified programs are free also.

The Free Software Foundation extended this license to their biggest project, the GNU operating system (image to the left). The project’s Web site says GNU, pronounced guh-noo, was started to produce a Unix-like free software operating system. The name is even an acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix.” Unix started as an operating system in the early 1970’s, according to the Unix system website.

Software that meets the open source criteria, and many times the free software criteria, can be found on According to, the number of visitors to has been increasing steadily over the past three years. Other more popular open source programs have their websites, like and And shows that both of the websites have also seen an increase of visitors over the past three years. The open source and free software movements are gaining some ground.

1 comment:

Kristen LaVerghetta said...

This was a good topic. The material was generally interesting. Software is something we all use, so this affects everyone. Before reading this I really didn't know much about this "open source". I liked how you gave this technology topic a social spin.

I'm not a technology person, so I really don't know much about the terminology, but any language or terms that could be difficult, were explained in the text. The links were good and worked fine, and the pictures relevant.