What is "Open Source"?

By Jonathan Falkner
Software Developer, former Fynyddian

"Open source community" is a term used to describe a group of people who believe that software should be written in a way that anyone can read the code, add to the code, alter the code, and redistribute the code in generally any manner without legal consequence. Those in the open source community attempt to achieve this goal by releasing software under "copyleft" licensing instead of under standard copyright. Standard software copyrights make one person or corporation own the code exclusively. "Copyleft" licenses focus on how to keep the code free to all and protect the code so that anyone can redistribute it.

A Few Examples of Copyleft Licenses:

Creative Commons Attribution License

This license is the easiest to understand. It simply requires that, in order to use the copyrighted work, all one must do is note the original author. This license is generally used for photos, graphics, and written word, but can also be used for software.


There are a number of versions of the GPL, but the general idea behind the GPL license is to legally require that distribution of the software, whether in it's original form or altered in any way, must include the source code (or provide a working link to download the source code).

BSD License

This license focuses on allowing anyone to do anything with the code, including close the source. This license does not require that a person distribute the original source, nor provide anyone with any modifications made to the source code. An example of this is Mac OSX. Much of BSD linux was used to build the core of this operating system, yet Apple is not required to provide the source code to anyone. The original source code remains freely available for anyone else to use as a foundation for new software.

The Value of Open Source

Basically, in a nutshell, the open source community is a movement to eliminate the stranglehold that copyright generally has on software development. Because software generally becomes outdated and obsolete much faster than it takes for the copyright on that software to expire, developers are forced to reinvent the wheel repeatedly to be able to do their jobs.

Consider this:

  • Windows 3.1 is still under copyright.
  • VisualBasic 4.5 is still under copyright (I was developing in this programming language at 12 years old)
  • Apple's Apple ][e operating system is still under copyright.
  • The Commodore 64 operating system (a system from before the NES) and all it's games are still under copyright.

Having open source software such as JQuery.js, JQuery UI, Open Office, RedHat Enterprise Linux, Ubuntu, Audacity, GNU Image Manipulation Program, Notepad++, FireFox, git, tortoisegit, subversion, open source content management software (Drupal, dotnetnuke, CakePHP, Umbraco), Eclipse IDE, etc., lets us enhance software, and not have to recreate it from scratch.

Without BSD Linux, the core of Apple's OSX Lion operating system would have to have been written from scratch, increasing the cost of that OS to consumers and lowering Apple's profits.

Without Linux as a whole, the entire Google Android system would be far less pervasive, and would have cost considerably more to develop, increasing costs for consumers and lowering profits for Google.

The GNU Image Manipulation Program (an open source alternative to Photoshop) allowed the masses to have a free piece of software to do nearly anything Photoshop could do, and to collaboratively enhance it as new features were needed. The result? Photoshop released "Photoshop Elements", a consumer version of their software which removes a few minor features that mostly only companies would need, and consumers now have more cost effective choices.

PHP, Apache, and the Linux OS paved the way for the massive expansion of the internet using free software on low powered hardware, making self publishing a reality for anyone with a little time on their hands.

Open Source / Free Software

Software free from copyright restrictions means faster, easier, cheaper, and better software for everyone, and better profitability for service driven companies. I'm excited to be a part of the ongoing progression towards software free from copyright restrictions, and I look forward to what is coming next.

Article last updated on 3/29/2018