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Open Source

Philosophy, Ideas and


Current Relevance

HS2240: Current Affairs Workshop

Athul K

HS08H006

April, 2010
Introduction

The Open Source movement has, in recent times, gained a high visibility status, not only in
the so-called ‟computer geeks‟ society and IRC channels but also among the general public.
According to Wikipedia (which itself is based on the Open Source model), “Open source
describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product's
source materials.”1 For example, in the case of software, the basic building blocks of the
software- the source code will be made available to the user.

Though Open Source is usually related to the Free Software movement, it is not limited to it.
The Open Source model is being applied to various other fields in the recent times like the
Open Source Drug Discovery initiative by the CISR. One of the greatest blessings for the
academia and the society at large is Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia based on the Open Source
model and maintained by the community. Apache, the software that runs more than half of
the internet is based on Open Source standards.

One of the greatest advantages of the open source development model is that once you grant
access to the source, development and maintenance processes take place really fast. The
greatest example ever for this is the Linux operating system- based completely on the Open
Source model an backed by licences like the GNU/GPL.

Open Source is considered both as a philosophy and as a pragmatic methodology. The notion
of opening up the source code came up with the rise of the internet. Opening the source code
enabled a self-enhancing diversity of production models, communication paths, and
interactive communities. Subsequently, a new, three-word phrase "open source software" was
born to describe the environment that the new copyright, licensing, domain, and consumer
issues created. This approach has gained great momentum and acceptance as the potential
benefits have been recognised by the society and businesses at large.

In this paper, I try to analyse the various aspects of the Open Source development model and
look into its successful application is various fields. To give the ideas a proper basing, I‟ll try
to stick to the Open Source Software development model.

1
Open Source- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source
The Definition

Open Source is a method and philosophy for software licensing and distribution designed to
encourage use and improvement of the software written by volunteers around the world,
connected through the internet, by ensuring that anyone can copy the source code and modify
it freely and release the modified version to the public at no cost. A simpler definition would
be that “No information is closed and stored at a place only accessible to the author. Every
piece of human knowledge is shared with the world.” This model ensures that every human,
by virtue of his birth, has access to knowledge gathered by his fellow humans.

“A person is a person through (other) persons”- Ubuntu philosophy, African ethics

In the modern day world, from our childhood, we are taught to look at things from a
individualistic perspective. This idea has a significant connection with the idea of
individuality talked about in the documentary- „Century of the self‟. The idea of community
and team work is taught only in moral science text books in school, but they are not put into
practice. In school we are taught to share our lunch with our friends, but when we practice it
by sharing software (a form of human knowledge), we are called pirates. Even religious texts
(including Indian books) say that human knowledge belongs to the world and it must be
shared. The poem „Where the mind is without fear‟ by Rabindranath Tagore, portrays exactly
the same idea. The poem goes like this:

Where the Mind Is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
The Open Source movement was started by computer programmers like Richard Stallman
who thought that secrecy and centralized control of software has to be removed from the
process of software development. They advocated the employment of a decentralised,
transparent and unrestricted open sharing model where the source code is shared with the
users of the software. The source code refers to the human-readable text based code of
computer programs. In the case of closed source software, the software is compiled and
made into a form of 1s and 0s that only machines can interpret and thus blocking the user
my further modifications to the software.

The following is the Open Source Definition according to the Free Software Foundation
(FSF):

Introduction

Open source doesn't just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-
source software must comply with the following criteria:

1. Free Redistribution
The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a
component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several
different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

2. Source Code
The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as
well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source
code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more
than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without
charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would
modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate
forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.

3. Derived Works
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.

4. Integrity of The Author's Source Code


The license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form only if
the license allows the distribution of "patch files" with the source code for the purpose
of modifying the program at build time. The license must explicitly permit
distribution of software built from modified source code. The license may require
derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software.

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups


The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavour


The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific
field of endeavour. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a
business, or from being used for genetic research.

7. Distribution of License
The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is
redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.

8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product


The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's being part of a
particular software distribution. If the program is extracted from that distribution and
used or distributed within the terms of the program's license, all parties to whom the
program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in
conjunction with the original software distribution.

9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software


The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with
the licensed software. For example, the license must not insist that all other programs
distributed on the same medium must be open-source software.
10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral
No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style
of interface.2

The notion of freedom is often misunderstood in the context of Free and Open Source
Software. The freedom here stands for freedom to view and modify source code and not in
terms of exemption from payment to buy the software. As Richard Stallman, founder of the
GNU/GPL, puts it, “Free as in freedom, not as in beer.” Freedom here has to be seen from the
context of free speech. Open Source software may or may not be exempt from price, but it
provides freedom to innovate, and to stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Free Software Foundation


The FSF or Free Software Foundation advocates for free software ideals. It works for
adoption of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and free media formats, and organises
activist campaigns against threats to users‟ freedom from proprietary software like Windows,
Apple‟s iPhone and OS X, DRM (Digital Rights Management- a licence that forbids users
from making copies of the content that purchased) on ebooks and multimedia content, and
software patents. They promote completely free software distributions of GNU/Linux, and
advocate that users of the GNU/Linux operating system switch to a distribution which
respects their freedom. They also promote the development of free software projects by
providing support and funding.

The Licences

 Copyleft
Copyleft is a general method for making a program (or other work) free, and
requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. It is a
play on the term “copyright” and actually, uses many of its clauses too. The simplest
way to make a program free is to put it in the public domain, uncopyrighted. This
allows people to share the program and their improvements, if they are so minded.
But it also allows uncooperative people to convert the program into proprietary

2
– Open Source Initiative, http://opensource.org/docs/osd
software. They can make changes, many or few, and distribute the result as a
proprietary product. People who receive the program in that modified form do not
have the freedom that the original author gave them; the middleman has stripped it
away. In the GNU project, our aim is to give all users the freedom to redistribute and
change GNU software. If middlemen could strip off the freedom, we might have
many users, but those users would not have freedom. Hence, in order to curb this
practice- instead of putting the GNU software in the public domain, the author
“copylefts” it. Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or
without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it.
Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom.

 GNU/GPL
The GNU General Public License is a free, Copyleft license for software and other
kinds of works. The licenses for most software and other practical works are
designed to take away the users’ freedom to share and change the works. By
contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee the users’
freedom to share and change all versions of a program-to make sure it remains free
software for all its users. The Free Software Foundation, use the GNU General Public
License for most of its software; it applies also to any other work released this way
by its authors. Any developer can apply this licence to his work. When I speak of Free
Software, it must be kept in mind that I’m referring to freedom, not price. The
General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that the users’ have the freedom
to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if they wish), that the
users’ receive source code or can get it if they want it, that they can change the
software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and that they know they can do
these things.
Content developers that use the GNU GPL protect the users’ rights with two steps:
(1) assert copyright on the software, and (2) offer the users’ this License giving the
users’ legal permission to copy, distribute and/or modify it.
 Creative Commons
This is a licence mostly applied to creative works like photographs, poetry and wikis.
Creative Commons was invented to create a more flexible copyright model, replacing
"all rights reserved" with "some rights reserved.” Notable projects that use this licence
are Wikipedia, Flickr, MIT OpenCourseWare, etc.
Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright and
the public domain. From all rights reserved to no rights reserved. These licenses
helps the author in keeping copyrights while allowing certain uses of their works- a
“some rights reserved” copyright. Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative
to copyright. They work alongside copyright, so the author can modify their
copyright terms to best suit his needs.

Impact and Implementations


 Open Source Drug Discovery Project3
OSSD is a CSIR initiative with a vision to provide affordable
healthcare to the developing world by providing a global platform
where the best minds can collaborate & collectively endeavour to
solve the complex problems associated with discovering novel
therapies for neglected tropical diseases like Malaria, Tuberculosis,
Leshmaniasis, etc. It is a concept to collaboratively aggregate the
biological and genetic information available to scientists in order to
use it to hasten the discovery of drugs. This will provide a unique
opportunity for scientists, doctors, technocrats, students and others
with diverse expertise to work for a common cause.

The success of Open Source models in Information Technology (For


e.g., Web Technology, The Linux Operating System) and
Biotechnology (For e.g., Human Genome Sequencing) sectors

3
http://www.osdd.net/what-is-osdd/objectives-of-open-source-drug-discovery
highlights the urgent need to initiate a similar model in healthcare,
i.e., an Open Source model for Drug Discovery.

The TB gene map is made freely available online under the Open Source Drug
Discovery initiative of the CSIR. Anyone, including drug companies, could use the
data and add to or modify them; it works on the same principle as Wikipedia.

 Linux Operating System4


Linux is an operating system that was initially created as a hobby by a young student,
Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Linus had an interest in Minix,
a small UNIX system, and decided to develop a system that exceeded the Minix
standards. He began his work in 1991 when he released version 0.02 and worked
steadily until 1994 when version 1.0 of the Linux Kernel was released. The kernel, at
the heart of all Linux systems, is developed and released under the GNU General
Public License and its source code is freely available to everyone. It is this kernel that
forms the base around which a Linux operating system is developed. There are now
literally hundreds of companies and organizations and an equal number of
individuals that have released their own versions of operating systems based on the
Linux kernel.
It is one of the most advanced and secure operating systems available today. Being
more secure, stable powerful than its proprietary counterparts, it has a very huge
user base including scientific institutions like the CERN and universities. It is
completely open source and anyone can contribute to its development. It is possible
for even non-science students to contribute to it by writing documentation or
reporting bugs.

 IT @ School Project
Under this project, all the state run schools in Kerala have switched to fully open
source software based education system. Instead of teaching students to use

4
http://www.linux.org/info/index.html
proprietary software, they are using Linux in the school. This motivates them to join
the spirit of open source instead of becoming slaves to the likes of Microsoft.

CONCLUSION
So what shall be done? I conclude that the Free and Open source Software must be
recognised and given due credit for its major contributions from our friendly Linux
Operating System to the Apache We Server. We must be respectful to authors of
good free software. I fully accept that both FOSS and commercial software have a
role to play. The scene would be much better if big players like Microsoft promote a
more open attitude towards the rest of the world, open up and be less mean.
The progress in a situation like this would far faster than today’s. New products can
be brought into the market by modifying the existing ones effectively- this would
trigger better competition and therefore, better growth. Just think abosut the
beauty of a world where human knowledge is free and humans are bound by values
far greater than economic benefit.
May the source be with you!