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The Open Source Definition

Bruce Perens

The typical computer user owns lots of software that he bought years ago and no longer uses today. He may have upgraded his computer or changed brands, and then the program wouldn't work any longer. The software might have become obsolete. The program may simply not do what he needs. He may have bought two or more computers, and doesn't want to pay for a second copy of the software. Whatever the reason, the software that he paid for years ago isn't up to the task today. Does that really need to happen?

What if you had the right to get a free upgrade whenever your software needed it? What if, when you switched from a Mac to a PC, you could switch software versions for free? What if, when the software doesn't work or isn't powerful enough, you can have it improved or even fix it yourself? What if the software was still maintained even if the company that produced it went out of business? What if you could use your software on your office workstation, and your home desktop computer, and your portable laptop, instead of just one computer? You'd probably still be using the software you paid for years ago. These are some of the rights that Open Source gives you.

The Open Source Definition is a bill of rights for the computer user. It defines certain rights that a software license must grant you to be certified as Open Source. Those who don't make their programs Open Source are finding it difficult to compete with those who do, as users gain a new appreciation of rights they always should have had. Programs like the Linux operating system and Netscape's web browser have become extremely popular, displacing other software that has more restrictive licenses. Companies that use open-source software have the advantage of its very rapid development, often by several collaborating companies, and much of it contributed by individuals who simply need an improvement to serve their own needs.

The volunteers who made products like Linux possible are only there, and the companies are only able to cooperate, because of the rights that come with Open Source. The average computer programmer would feel stupid if he put lots of work into a program, only to have the owner of the program sell his improvement without giving anything back. Those same programmers feel comfortable contributing to Open Source because they are assured of these rights:

These rights are important to the software contributor because they keep all contributors at the same level relative to each other. Everyone who wants to is allowed to sell an Open Source program, so prices will be low and development to reach new markets will be rapid. Anyone who invests the time to build knowledge in an Open Source program can support it, and this provides users with the option of providing their own support, or the economy of a number of competing support providers. Any programmer can tailor an Open Source program to specific markets in order to reach new customers. People who do these things aren't compelled to pay royalties or license fees.

The reason for the success of this somewhat communist-sounding strategy, while the failure of communism itself is visible around the world, is that the economics of information are fundamentally different from those of other products. There is very little cost associated with copying a piece of information like a computer program. The electricity involved costs less than a penny, and the use of the equipment not much more. In comparison, you can't copy a loaf of bread without a pound of flour.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06