Open Source Primer

For those who didn't get on in the beginning of the ride

My friend Joe Franscella of Trainer Communications and the SecurityHeavy blog, is a good friend and avid reader of all the blogs I write. While being a top PR and marketing pro, as well as knowing the security market in and out, Joe is a bit of a novice on open source. He asked if it would be possible to do a post giving some background on open source for all of you who may not be open source experts.  Great idea Joe!  Here is my feeble attempt at it. This will be the first of a multi-part series I will try to write every week. Hopefully for those of you who are open source novices this will help.  For those of you who are open source experts, feel free to chime in.

What is open source software? Open source software is software in which the actual source code of the software is freely available along with the software.  That is not to say that it is necessarily free as in no cost. But rather that the source code is included or available with the software. Open source advocates like to say "it is free as in freedom, not free as in beer". The inclusion of the source code is paramount in my opinion in open source software.

An important part of the open source story is that you are free to distribute the open source software, but pursuant to license you generally have to include the source code and preserve the copyright of the authors. Generally open source will have many people developing and contributing code. So who owns the copyright can be confusing. There are often disputes about code contributed to an open source project and then a commercial entity taking over the project and controlling the copyrights.

Generally most open source licenses call for any code changes you make and then distribute being made available and contributed back to the community. There are instances where people change the code themselves but do not distribute the version of the software with these changes and so don't contribute those changes back.

In general open source software is developed, supported and used by the community. The community is made up of developers, users and anyone else with an interest in a particular open source project. The vibrancy and size of a projects community is a good indicator of the health and success of an open source project.

Who owns open source software? Just because the software's source code is available and can be distributed and usually it does not cost any money, does not mean that the software is not owned. In other words, the IP and copyright of the authors are preserved even if you can distribute the software and have its source code to change yourself. Ownership of the IP and copyright is not a trivial game of semantics either.  When one has ownership or copyright control of the software, there are certain rights and privileges attached to it.  

A good thing to remember about open source is like the proverbial genie, once it is out of the bottle, it is hard to put back. That is to say, once the software has been released under an open source license, that version of the software can never be "unopened sourced". Newer versions released under different licenses can be though.

What is the open source model? Many times you will see people refer to an "open source model" to describe a something other than software.  For instance last week I wrote about the Open Cinema movement.  Generally the open source model refers to a project being undertaken in a shared, community environment.  With people contributing their work product into the "pool for the common good". Usually it involves making something available at no cost, along with all of the "source" necessary to allow you to improve and modify it yourself. Like in open source software, often times any changes you make need to be contributed back to the community.

The open source model is finding fertile ground in medical and pharmaceutical research. But it is also being used in green energy products and other fields.

What is commercial open source? Over the last decade or so we have seen the rise of commercial open source. By this we mean that there is a commercial entity whose business model is based around developing, supporting, servicing and selling open source software. Red Hat selling and supporting their version of Linux is one example.  But there are now many, many companies who not only support and existing open source project, but many times are the main developers and drivers of the project.

Over the last 5 to 7 years, venture capital firms have poured tens of millions of dollars into companies with commercial open source business models.  There is some disagreement over whether a company that monetizes only the support and services around open source can be truly successful.  Others say you need to sell some software that extends the base open source model.

This idea of selling software that extends and expands the feature set of open source software is sometimes called the Open Core model.  Because the supposed core of the software is open, all of the extras are not. Many open source community members violently disagree with this model considering it borderline heresy. They claim the open source parts of the open core software are usually useless without the premium code. That this is no more than traditional non-open software dressed in open source clothing.

Open Source License - Even though the source code is free and usually the software is free too, that does not mean there is not a license with the open source software. Almost all open source software is made available pursuant to a license. The OSI (open source initiative) keeps a list of all of the approved open source licenses. You can read the list here. While there are many licenses on the list, there are still some software which bills itself as open source but is distributed under licenses not on this list. This is another controversial topic.

The most popular licenses on the OSI list are the various versions of the GPL, BSD and the Mozilla Public license.  While each license has its own pros and cons, they all deal with how the software can be distributed, how you can use it and changes to the software.  Usually they call for you to include the copyright notice in any distribution of the software.  The licenses usually also cover derivatives of the open source software.  This can be another tricky area.

I think this is enough for todays primer. I hope this doesn't make your head spin and you understand a little more about open source. If there are specific questions or issues you would like me to explore, please leave a comment and I will try to address them next time.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in