Should we celebrate the anniversary of open source?

Today in Portland at OSCON, OSI will be celebrating 20 years of open source. I’ve had a few comments along the lines of “I’ve was saying ‘open source’ before 1998 so why bother with this 20 year celebration?”

That’s entirely possible. The phrase is reputed to have been used descriptively about free software — especially under non-copyleft licenses — from at least 1996 when it appeared in a press release. Given its appropriateness there’s a good chance it was in use earlier, although I’ve not found any reliable citations to support that. It was also in use in another field well before then, to describe military or diplomatic intelligence obtained by studying non-classified sources.

But there’s no doubt that the gathering at VA Linux where a group of key figures adopted Christine Peterson’s suggestion and decided to use the term to label a marketing programme for free software was a crucial moment. From that point onward, people who wanted to promote software freedom in business or wanted to identify their own approach to doing business with free software had a collectively-agreed term. It’s much easier to make a thing real if you have a word for it.

From that moment it became easy to talk about open source projects, open source business models, the benefits of open source and so on. Yes, people could talk about free software in the same way, but many of us found setting a “price frame” at the start of a discussion an unhelpful distraction requiring justification — “you mean you just want to give it away?” This arose because of the strength for native English speakers of the notion of zero cost associated with the word “free” and the need to dive into discussions about freedom in order to counter it.

The formation of OSI also changed things. By defining open source in reference to a definition of how to identify licenses that deliver the right to use, study, improve and share code, developers were empowered to use open source software without needing to seek further advice. By making a talking point of the methodology enabled by software freedom, open source enabled business adoption in a way that a frame based on promoting liberty would possibly derail. Together, this convergence of meaning made open source a lightning rod for change and an idea that could be spread outside a bubble of like minds. That’s not to say open source lacked a philosophical base; rather, that base became a foundation rather than the lead talking point.

Open source did not emerge from a void. It was consciously a marketing programme for the already-15-year-old idea of free software and arose in the context of both the GNU Project and the BSD community and their history (stretching back to the late 70s). We chose to reflect this in the agenda for our celebration track at OSCON.

But that doesn’t mean its inception is irrelevant. The consensus to define open source at the VA Linux meeting and the subsequent formation of OSI and acceptance of the Open Source Definition changed the phrase from descriptive to a term of art accepted globally. It created a movement and a market and consequently spread software freedom far beyond anyone’s expectations. That has to be worth celebrating.


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