What Does Open Source Mean?

What Does Open Source Mean?

You may have heard the term “open source”, but do you understand what that really means?

If you’re shaking your head, please let me quickly explain.

Basically it’s all about letting anyone use the open source item and share it without having any obligation to pay anything.

If you’ve got a couple of minutes, I’ll give you a bit more information about open source. I’ll also answer one important question. Are open source items inferior quality? The answer may surprise you.

A Very Quick History of Open Source

The concept stretches back in time and can be seen in practice with things such as recipes which were freely shared.  This sharing also led to adaptations being made to recipes which were also shared.

That’s another key concept of open source. Anyone can change the open source item, effectively creating a new item.

Historically, this concept of freely sharing was generally an informal agreement.

Surprisingly, one of the first formal implementations of an open source type agreement occurred in the US motor industry. The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association created a cross licensing agreement between US manufacturers. While the companies continued to develop independently and take out patents, the patents were freely shared between members. No fees or lawsuits, just open sharing to develop the industry as a whole.

Many people will most commonly think of software when considering open source. The GNU General Public License (GPL) is one of the best known open source software licenses. It was published in 1989 and applies to many projects, including WordPress.

Who Uses Open Source?

I’ve just mentioned WordPress, the most popular website system on the planet. That’s why any of us can buy web hosting and then install and use WordPress without paying a penny more.

It’s not just software though. Just about anything can be open source. You may have encountered the Creative Commons licenses. These vary in the degree of freedom that users are permitted. The CC0 license allows the author to waive all their rights, so permitting users to do anything with the item. You can find this applied to photos, illustrations, writing and music among other things.

What’s the point of Open Source?

There are a few reasons for open source.

The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association identified that it would help develop their industry. When ideas are freely exchanged, improvements can come quickly as many minds build on the work.

Elon Musk has continued this approach at Tesla, making 100s of their patents free for any other company to use. His aim is just the same, to help speed the development of the electric car industry.

This strength in numbers brings benefits for everybody. The more people working on a project, the quicker new features and improvements can become available.

For many open source advocates, freedom is the most important thing though. Anyone is free to adapt an item in any way they want. If the original doesn’t do what you need, you can change it to better fulfill your needs.

Does Open Source Come With Restrictions?

There are many different open source licenses around now. They vary in their restrictions.

Some are very liberal in their terms. For example, the MIT license and the Do What the F**k You Want to Public License (it’s a real, honest) allow anyone to use the item in any way they like. Neither impose any conditions on the user.

The GPL mentioned earlier has a less liberal condition. Anyone who adapts an item under the license has to release their adaptation under the same license.

This is part of the reason there are so many free plugins and themes for WordPress. WordPress uses the GPL, meaning all plugins and themes have to use the GPL too as they adapt WordPress.

Can Open Source Items Be Sold?

As odd as it sounds, yes, anyone can sell items licensed under the GPL. This applies to other open source licenses too, but not necessarily all.

This is seen quite clearly with premium WordPress plugins and themes. There are many authors selling their work and this is completely in compliance with the GPL. It’s perfectly fine to sell access to a plugin or theme. While the GPL says anyone can freely share and use items licensed under it, if you can’t get the item, that doesn’t help you. Hence, it’s not uncommon to pay for open source items, because that may be the only way to get access.

In many cases, however, the authors are selling support and updates. This gives them an advantage over someone who may be sharing their work freely. Many customers prefer the peace of mind that comes with support from the original author.

Are Open Source Items Inferior?

The old adage says we get what we pay for. While that can be the case with open source, it often isn’t.

WordPress should be enough to convince you of that. There are many open source projects that lead their fields.

There may be a downside with open source and that is support. When you buy something, you almost invariably have support from the maker or seller. With open source, there isn’t that same contract between you and the author. Many will offer some free help and advice and often you can find help from the community of users. Ultimately though, you’re on your own with open source. Sill that hasn’t held WordPress back and it shouldn’t hold you back from the many advantages of open source either.

If your budget is tight, open source can be the answer to your problems. In many cases though, even with a limitless budget, open source is still the best solution.


I’m Ian Pullen and when not working as a dog and cat butler, I’m a designer/developer and writer who works on projects for solopreneurs, SMBs and multi-nationals like Unilever and Lenovo.
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Photo by Irvan Smith on Unsplash

© Ian Pullen - Shoestring Hustle 2018