The Fascinating Landscape of Open-Source Definitions

Open-source software definitions: A comprehensive exploration for experienced software developers.

1. Introduction

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, open-source software has become the main foundation of the tech industry, revolutionizing the way software is developed, shared, and utilized. In this article, we delve into the fascinating world of open-source definitions asking the question "What is Open-Source, anyway?".

2. A Brief History of Open Source Definitions

The origins of open-source definitions can be traced back to the late 1990s when Bruce Perens created one of the first definitions for Open-Source based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Their efforts to promote collaborative development led to the emergence of various definitions that aimed to encapsulate the spirit of open source. As the community grew, different entities, including governments, universities, and tech giants, began to establish their own interpretations, driven by their unique motivations and perspectives.

DateTitleAuthor / Org
1996"What is Free Software?"Richard Stallman @ Free Software Foundation (FSF)
1997"The Open Source definition"Bruce Perens @ Open Source Initiative (OSI)
2014["Open SourceDefinition"](
2014Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
2015"Open-Source"The Cambridge Dictionary
2017"What Is Open Source Software?"Linux Foundation
2019"What is open source?"Red Hat
2020"Definition of Open Source"Gartner Group
2022"Open-Source"American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
2023"What is open source software?"IBM

3. An Overview of Open-Source Definitions

Let's explore a selection of the ten most commonly used open-source definitions, each reflecting a distinct viewpoint and contributing to the diverse tapestry of open-source software:

Certainly! Here's a table in Markdown format that presents the open-source definitions and their hard criteria for determining whether a software system is considered open-source or not:

Open Source Initiative (OSI)- The software must allow free redistribution
- The source code must be available
- Derived works must be allowed
- No discrimination against persons, groups, or fields of endeavor
- Neutrality regarding software distribution, bundling, or technology
Free Software Foundation (FSF)- The freedom to run the program for any purpose
- The freedom to study and modify the program
- The freedom to redistribute copies
- The freedom to distribute modified versions
**Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG)- The software must include the source code
- Allow modifications and derived works
- No discrimination against persons or groups
- License integrity
*United States Government- Custom-developed software should be released as open source
*European Union- Encourages the use of open-source software for digital sovereignty and innovation
**Open Knowledge Foundation- Promotes openness beyond software, including open data, content, and access
???ISO OSI Reference Model- Provides a conceptual framework for network protocols
Red Hat- Emphasizes collaboration, community involvement, and the use of open-source licenses
Microsoft- Embraces open-source software and supports open-source projects and initiatives
Google- Supports open-source software and emphasizes openness, collaboration, and community-driven development

Please note that these criteria are a summary of the key requirements found in the respective definitions. The complete definitions provide more detailed guidelines and principles.

  1. Open Source Initiative (OSI): The OSI defines open source as software that grants users the freedom to run, study, modify, and distribute the software. It emphasizes collaboration, community-driven development, and the use of approved open-source licenses.

  2. Free Software Foundation (FSF): The FSF defines free software as software that respects users' freedoms, ensuring that users have the freedom to run, study, modify, and distribute the software. It emphasizes the ethical and philosophical aspects of software freedom.

  3. Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG): The DFSG defines guidelines for software that can be included in Debian, focusing on software that promotes user freedom and does not impose unnecessary restrictions.

  4. United States Government: The U.S. government encourages the release of custom-developed software as open source to promote transparency, collaboration, and reusability across federal agencies.

  5. European Union: The European Union recognizes open-source software as a key driver of digital sovereignty, innovation, and interoperability. It encourages member states to adopt open-source solutions.

  6. Open Knowledge Foundation: The Open Knowledge Foundation promotes openness beyond software, emphasizing the broader concept of open data, open content, and open access.

  7. ISO OSI Reference Model: The International Organization for Standardization's Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) Reference Model provides a framework for understanding and designing network protocols. While not explicitly focused on open-source software, it contributes to the understanding of interoperability.

  8. Red Hat: Red Hat, a leading provider of open-source solutions, defines open source based on principles of collaboration, community involvement, and the use of open-source licenses.

  9. Microsoft: Microsoft has embraced open-source software and defines it within the context of their involvement in open-source projects and initiatives.

  10. Google: Google promotes open-source software and defines it based on their own approach to openness, collaboration, and community-driven development.

4. Analyzing Open-Source Definitions

While the underlying principles of collaboration, transparency, and user freedoms persist in most definitions, the emphasis and language used does vary. Differences in terminology, licensing preferences, and governance models contribute to the diverse landscape of open-source software definitions. However, a common thread unites them all — the commitment to fostering collaboration, innovation, and community-driven development.

The variations highlight the diverse perspectives and priorities that shape the open-source landscape.

5. Consequences of Open-Source Definitions

Understanding the consequences of open-source definitions is crucial for developers navigating the open-source landscape. It is important to note that definitions of open source software are not binding and that each developer may have their own interpretation of its essence. This flexibility allows for innovation and creativity but also necessitates clear communication and shared understanding among collaborators.

At the core of open source lies the notion of openly available software. Developers share their source code with the intention of fostering collaboration, enabling others to study, modify, and distribute the software. However, it's crucial to grasp the following key aspects to navigate this dynamic ecosystem effectively:

Trademarks and Individual Interpretations

Open-source software lacks a trademark, which means each developer may have their own understanding and interpretation of its essence. This inherent flexibility allows for innovation but also necessitates clear communication and shared understanding.

The Core of Open Source: Availability and Licensing

At its core, open source revolves around the availability of source code and the permissions granted through licensing. It is vital to comprehend the specific licenses governing the software systems and respect the terms set forth by the developers.

Legal Binding Elements: The hard truth

While definitions provide guidance, it's important to remember that they are not legally binding. The terms on platforms like Github and the licenses associated with the software project governs the legal aspects. In the end those are the terms the maintainers or developers of an "open-source" software system accepted - not a definition by any organization.

6. Conclusion

In this ever-evolving landscape of open-source software, definitions serve as guideposts, but they are not set in stone. Open source is a dynamic and collaborative ecosystem, shaped by the contributions and perspectives of countless developers worldwide.

It's crucial to recognize that the true heart of open source lies in the terms set by the developers and maintainers of the projects - often solely defined by the software license and the terms of the sourcecode hosting platform such as GitHub. These are the legally binding elements that shape the rights and obligations of contributors and users.

Remember, the open-source world is a vibrant tapestry of ideas, perspectives, and interpretations.