Just a copy?

There is an argument that is trotted out pretty regularly by people critical of “open source”. It takes various forms but boils down to roughly this:

“Open source is just copying an existing program”.

Whether its “Open Source is Not Innovative” or “Open-source companies absolutely can’t have a new, innovative technology.” or “a herd simply cannot innovate”, at base, this argument is an argument glorifying individualism and warning against collectivism. The reality however is that many “open source” projects started as the work of a single person. Ruby on Rails and the underlying Ruby language are both examples of this. They are also maintained and extended by individuals, each of whom is more empowered to make any improvement they want than the average corporate employee. There is no collectivist bogeyman here. There is plenty of brilliant and original work being done in the “open source” world. In fact the majority of the internet is build on it.  And yet because they are licensed in such a way that people can read the source code, somehow in the minds of these people these projects are incapable of “innovation”.

Those arguments still resonate with people however flawed they may be. While I strongly disagree with the assumptions that are being made, for the sake of argument lets assume its true. There is more going on than meets the eye even when it seems that Programme B is just an open source copy of Programme A.

The difference is probably illustrated nicely by a website update I did a while ago. Wanting to spruce up my site a little and try out a the CSS @font-face command. @font-face allows me, the developer, to point to an actual font file that the person viewing my website will then automatically download a copy of so it can be used by their browser when viewing my site. That’s pretty exciting since I am pretty bored of Arial. The problem is that the licence for most fonts forbid that sort of thing, since most font designers are looking to be paid for each copy that is used.

For me any snazzy looking font was fine for my site but I needed an additional feature beyond serifs. I needed a feature that is not inherent in the font itself, but one that comes from the licence it is released under. I needed freedom to distribute the font. I looked around and eventually found a copy of some standard font that had been released under a liberal licence. The reality was that it was not “just a copy”. Even though it was nearly indistinguishable from a commercial font, the licence alone had added the killer feature that I needed.

The same applies for any other software. Assuming two programmes, identical in all ways but one is closed source while the other is GPL. The licence alone has added to the feature set.

That’s right, freedom is a feature.

So at least in my mind, even if I pretend that its true that “open source” is just copying, I would still say that it’s not “just” copying. Its improving.

Just my two cents.


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