The term "open source"

May 16, 2016 commentary , opensource 3 min read

Nadia Eghbal writes I hate the term “open source” :

It doesn’t accurately reflect how people are building today anymore.

The term “open source” has become so broad as to become meaningless. I would guess at least half of my conversations with people involve the question “Wait…so what IS open source, actually?”, or realizing about 10 minutes in that we’re talking about completely different things.

Officially, open source is defined by a list of ten criteria, which you can read about here…Were you aware there was an official definition? I didn’t think so.

Compared to other popular concepts like “agile”, “lean”, and “organic”, the meaning of “open source” remains incredibly intact 20 years later. This is owed mostly to this definition. Everyone who uses open source shouldn’t have to be able to recite the definition of open source, let alone know it exists. Our lives are ruled by laws, bills, codes, directives, orders, and documents that most of us don’t know exist. The important part is that those building infrastructure know they exist and create sensible defaults.

Licenses are not a useful way to define modern open source anymore. They matter in as much as it matters that most startups are set up as Delaware C Corps; you want to check the compliance boxes, but the fine print is best left up to legal nerds and lawyers.

There’s a difference between becoming a common practice and becoming useless. Delaware doesn’t make C Corps irrelevant. It’s because of Delaware’s clear laws and efficient corporate legal system that make it a sensible default for most startups. The Open Source Definition and the list of approved licenses have, in some ways, done for software what Delaware did for C Corps: most people don’t have to think about it.

Technically, most projects on GitHub don’t even meet the official definition of open source (since over 80% don’t have a license). That means when we say GitHub is where people “open source” their work, we are implicitly upholding a definition that looks more like GitHub’s Terms of Service.

We’ve spent some time digging into the licensing situation on GitHub over the last few months and will be posting an updated blog post soon. Our primary conclusion is that most projects that fit any other definition of “open source”–such as multiple contributors or starred by more than a few people–have a license. In other words, the 80% of unlicensed repositories generally reflect the number of repositories that are only used by the author and maybe a few friends; these repositories tend to be things like coding exercises, personal notes or homework.

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avatar of Brandon Keepers I am Brandon Keepers, and I work at GitHub on making Open Source more approachable, effective, and ubiquitous. I tend to think like an engineer, work like an artist, dream like an astronaut, love like a human, and sleep like a baby.