I'm not a programmer, really. I mean I'm a huge geek, and I understand some pretty heavy computer-science related problems, but coding isn't what I do. This is true of a lot of computer users these days, and it wouldn't be such a big deal if I weren't such a huge geek about open source software. I suspect that most of the users of open source software these days aren't that different than me in this respect--though many are programmers, in most cases they probably don't make active use of the source code of the software they use. [1]

This realization probably sounds familiar to some, as I've been trying to pull apart the contemporary modifications for open source software. One obvious answer to this question is, "freedom:" that open source software provides its users an non-tangible freedom and power over their interactions with technology. I've posted about why I think this is imprecise and while I need to spend time developing this argument further, there's some merit.

Another possibility is that open source represents a rethinking of intellectual property that is appealing, and that "free software" is an adjunct of a "free culture" movement. While this is an interesting theory and a good story, certainly there are parallels, I'm not sure that it's the case. I don't know if free culture movements (like wikipedia and creative commons) and free/open source software grow out of the same kinds of historical moments, or share anything more than inspirations and morphology. More pondering is required.

I've always seen Creative Commons as a sort of "legal activism," to provide mechanisms to push laws to reflect the realities of copyright in digital spaces. Creative Commons isn't a technological advancement, but rather a formal account for extant practices. That is, consumers of a CC license aren't able to do anything (except potentially access) with a covered work that they couldn't do with a conventionally protected work.

The same is not true of nearly all open source software. A free/open source software license makes certain rights available to the users of that software that they'd never have otherwise. Always. Even though we don't often take advantage of this accessible source code, it strikes me that "intellectual property reform" doesn't really cover why people are either contributing to open source or using open source. Additionally, there are relatively few--that I'm aware of--Creative Commons projects/works that are themselves collaborative, which presents another contrast between these two modes. While most FOSS projects originate with a single author, all successes create communities. I'm not sure that the same life cycle exists in "free culture" works.

Open source is successful in a way that "closed source/encumbered freeware" has never really been, outside of some moment-to-moment bubbles. I think this point about "community," and the mode of authorship is a huge part of what makes open source attractive and vibrant moving forward. Not the only reason, of course, but a key contributor. Works with creative commons licenses are "X by Author, released under CC license," whereas open source projects eventually become "X is GPL'ed," even if key original authors are well known as Linus is for Linux or Dries is for Drupal.

This is important. I'm not sure yet how, but that's what makes this whole 'blog thing interesting. There are other arguments too, but this is a start.


[1]The truth is that as programs become more complex, code bases grow older, and the lion's share of the current generation of programmers has grown up on pretty high level languages and problem spaces, even among the technically sophisticated there aren't a lot of people who are standing around ready to hack on a project with several thousand lines of C code.