10.7 The Synthesis of "Open Source"

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The tension between the BSD licenses and the GNU has always festered like the abortion debate. Everyone picked sides and rarely moved from them.


In 1998, a group of people in the free software community tried to unify the two camps by creating a new term, "open source." To make sure everyone knew they were serious, they started an unincorporated organization, registered a trademark, and set up a website (www.opensource.org). Anyone who wanted to label their project "open source" would have to answer to them because they would control the trademark on the name.


Sam Ockman, a Linux enthusiast and the founder of Penguin Computing, remembers the day of the meeting just before Netscape announced it was freeing its source code. "Eric Raymond came into town because of the Netscape thing. Netscape was going to free their software, so we drove down to Transmeta and had a meeting so we could advise Netscape," he said.


He explained that the group considered a number of different options about the structure. Some wanted to choose a leader now. Others wanted to emulate an open source project and let a leader emerge through the display of talent and, well, leadership. Others wanted elections.


The definition of what was open source grew out of the Debian project, one of the different groups that banded together to press CDROMs of stable Linux releases. Groups like these often get into debates about what software to include on the disks. Some wanted to be very pure and only include GPL'ed software. In a small way, that would force others to contribute back to the project because they wouldn't get their software distributed by the group unless it was GPL'ed. Others wanted less stringent requirements that might include quasi-commercial projects that still came with their source code. There were some cool projects out there that weren't protected by GPL, and it could be awfully hard to pass up the chance to integrate them into a package.


Over time, one of the leaders of the Debian group, Bruce Perens, came to create a definition of what was acceptable and what wasn't. This definition would be large enough to include the GNU General Public License, the BSD-style licenses, and a few others like MIT's X Consortium license and the Artistic license. The X-windows license covers a graphical windowing interface that began at MIT and was also freely distributed with BSD-like freedom. The Artistic license applies to the Perl programming language, a tool that is frequently used to transform files. The Debian meta-definition would embrace all of these.
The official definition of what was acceptable to Debian leaned toward more freedom and fewer restrictions on the use of software. Of course, that's the only way that anyone could come up with a definition that included both GNU and the much less restrictive BSD. But this was also the intent of the open source group. Perens and Eric Raymond felt that Stallman still sounded too quasi-communist for "conservative businessmen," and they wanted the open source definition to avoid insisting upon the sort of forced sharing that Stallman's GNU virus provided.


Still, the definition borrowed heavily from Stallman's concept of GNU, and Perens credits him by saying that many of the Debian guidelines are derived from the GPL. An official open source license for a product must provide the programmer with source code that is human-readable. It can't restrict what modifications are made to the software or how it is sold or given away.


The definition glossed over the difference between BSD and GPU by stating, "The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software."


The definition proved to be the model for more commercial offerings like the Netscape Public License. In 1998, Netscape started distributing the source code to its popular browser in hopes of collecting help from the Internet and stopping Microsoft's gradual erosion of its turf. The license gave users wide opportunities to make changes and tinker with the software, but it also allowed Netscape to use the changes internally and refuse to share what they did with them. This special privilege offended some users who didn't like the imbalance, but it didn't bother many others who thought it was a reasonable compromise for a chance to tinker with commercial code. Netscape, of course, returned some of the favor by allowing people to keep their modifications private in much the same way that the BSD-style license provided.


In June 1999, the Open Source Initiative revealed a startling fact. They were close to failing in their attempts to register the term "open source" as a trademark. The phrase was too common to be registered. Instead, they backed away and offered to check out licenses and classify them officially as "OSI Certified" if they met the terms of the OSI's definition of freedom.


Some reacted negatively. Richard Stallman decided that he didn't like the word "open" as much as "free." Open doesn't capture the essence of freedom. Ockman says, "I don't think it's very fair. For ages, he's always said that the term 'free software' is problematic because people think of 'free beer' when they should be thinking of 'free speech.' We were attempting to solve that term. If the masses are confused, then corporate America is confused even more."


The debate has even produced more terms. Some people now use the phrase "free source" to apply to the general conglomeration of the GPL and the open source world. Using "free software" implies that someone is aligned with Stallman's Free Software Foundation. Using "open source" implies you're aligned with the more business-friendly Open Source Initiative. So "free source" and "open source" both work as a compromise. Others tweak the meaning of free and refer to GPL protected software as "GNUFree."
Naturally, all of this debate about freedom can reach comic proportions. Programmers are almost better than lawyers at finding loopholes, if only because they have to live with a program that crashes.[^7] Stallman, for instance, applies the GPL to everything coming out of the GNU project except the license itself. That can't be changed, although it can be freely reproduced. Some argue that if it were changeable, people would be able to insert and delete terms at will. Then they could apply the changed GPL to the new version of the software and do what they want. Stallman's original intent would not be changed. The GPL would still apply to all of the GNU software and its descendants, but it wouldn't be the same GPL.
[7]: Lawyers just watch their clients go to jail.