Re: Are you an open source developer?

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From: Kragen Sitaker (
Date: Wed Aug 23 2000 - 14:35:00 PDT

Dave Winer writes:
> Since the high ground in software integrity has been captured by the
> "open source" developers, we're going to start by figuring out exactly
> what an open source developer is.
> There's been a lot of writing on the subject, mostly by people who
> love the idea, but there is no commonly agreed-to definition. There are
> lots of different license agreements, some highly political, some which
> eliminate developers who do any commercial code at all, and others that
> say roughly "here's my gift, use it as you please and don't bother me."

There may not be a commonly-agreed-to definition of an "open source
developer", but there is a commonly agreed-to definition of "open
source software".

In the wake of Netscape's announcement, Christine Peterson invented the
term at a brainstorming session with Eric Raymond and others,
specifically to describe what the FSF calls "free software". Most of
those folks went on to found the Open Source Initiative in the next
week, with the support of the others.

The Open Source Initiative published the Open Source Definition
(, a modified version of the Debian Free Software
Guidelines, which defines what the OSI means by the term they
invented. Any other definition is prima facie illegitimate ---
an attempt to hijack the term.

I'm not sure what you mean by "eliminate developers", but the OSD does
not allow discrimination on the basis of commercial or non-commercial
use; software that cannot be sold commercially is emphatically not
open-source software. The OSD itself does not discriminate against
commercially-produced software; the origin of software is not mentioned
in the OSD at all.

The OSD also does not allow discrimination based on fields of endeavor;
licenses that prohibit use by developers who do commercial code are
also not open-source licenses.

> Most of the agreements are silent on the subject of patents and
> disclosure of prior art. Perhaps there's an opportunity to channel the
> generosity of most programmers to offset and prevent greed by others,
> if there's a consensus that being pro-open source is consistent with
> being anti-patent.

Software that is subject to restrictions that conflict with the OSD is
not open-source software. The word "copyright" does not appear in the
OSD; it would appear that patent-based restrictions on redistribution,
modification, or use can prevent software from being open-source
software, just as copyright-based restrictions can.

I haven't heard this articulated before, but I think people in the
community will agree with me. I've Cced to hear
what some of them think.

I think there is a consensus in the open-source community that patents
are very bad for open-source software.

> There are also gatekeepers at work, people who decide who is an open
> source developer or not. If being accepted by a gatekeeper is part of
> what makes someone an open source developer, let's get clear on who
> they are, and understand how their process works. Preferably, whether
> you're an open source developer or not is a matter between you and your
> conscience. I prefer to trust people by default, and do the whole thing
> without any gatekeepers at all.

Who are these "gatekeepers"? It seems to me that it is reasonable to
call anyone who develops open-source software an "open source
developer". What other reasonable definition is there?

Whether license terms conform to the OSD is fairly cut-and-dried,
although there are a few boundary cases that are hard to decide. The
OSD itself lists a number of licenses that conform to the OSD; if you
license your software under one of these licenses, and the software is
not subject to any other intellectual-property restrictions that
restrict redistribution, modifications, or use, the software is
open-source software. If you wrote it, that makes you an open-source

Being an open-source developer is like being naked. If you are wearing
clothes, you aren't naked. If you aren't wearing clothes, you are
naked. Anybody who looks at you can tell whether you are naked or not;
there are occasional boundary cases (what if you're wearing shoes?
Earmuffs? A necklace?), but it's not a matter between you and your
conscience. It's a matter between you and the rest of the world.

There are, in general, no gatekeepers who decide whether or not someone
is naked. But if someone claims to be naked while wearing a suit and
tie, there will be an outcry from the people who are really naked.

> Greed and manipulation are the way of life in US business, but often
> it's not so with programmers. There's a higher ethic among good
> developers, that's why the whole open source philosophy, as weakly as
> it has been defined, has a strong ring of truth. "Sure I share what I
> create!" is a common ethos, dating back to the beginning of computers
> and software, on all platforms, because programmers, like all artists,
> are suckers for love and appreciation. We share what we create because
> that's an essential part of what we do.

I agree. However, open-source software can still be created and used
by greedy and manipulative people. You can share with the intent to
exploit and manipulate those with whom you share. And it doesn't make
your software any less open-source.

> I'm in favor of programmers doing that, but let's not be picky about
> who we accept our gifts from. That's my own personal opinion, of
> course.

Of course.

> Further if this subject is being discussed elsewhere, send me
> pointers and I'll link to them from Scripting News.

I'll send you a pointer to the FoRK-archive version of this message.

> PS: I see this as exactly analogous to the debate in music between
> artists and the industry. The artists should define the industry, not
> the other way around, of course, imho.

I don't know if I agree. I think the fans should define the whole
thing, not the artists or the record companies. That's what
open-source software is about: software distributed on terms favorable
to the users, not just the creators. Terms that make the users
members, not just consumers.

<>       Kragen Sitaker     <>
Perilous to all of us are the devices of an art deeper than we ourselves
                -- Gandalf the Grey [J.R.R. Tolkien, "Lord of the Rings"]

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