What is open source? Five analogies.

Open source is one of those phrases that gets thrown around, from the Cabinet Office now asking for it in government ICT contracts, to cyber-libertarians saying it heralds the start of a post-capitalist age. But what does it actually mean? And given how much of the for-profit digital world depends on open source - from Android phones to the Safari browser, Facebook’s servers to YouTube’s interface - is it another example of an economy wanting something for nothing?

In simple terms, an Open Source License allows people to view, modify, copy and share computer code, usually without restriction. To understand what that means in practice, it’s helpful to use five analogies:

Transparency: a car. 

An open source license is like having the right to lift your car bonnet to view the engine. If you use software but can’t see what it’s doing behind the scenes, then it’s impossible to know what it’s doing with your data or even if it’s secure. By making code viewable by all, it’s much easier to spot and fix security flaws and bugs, which is why many cryptographic and encryption standards are open source.

Modification: a house

Open source is like buying a house and being free to decorate it however you want, to build extensions or demolish walls. Closed source software strictly limits what you can do with it.

Accumulative: DNA

Like a genome that keeps evolving, or the way academia builds upon prior knowledge, open source is a way of ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, by building on what exists, rather than starting from scratch. This applies to everything from coding languages to design elements, which can develop in an accumulative way, with anyone free to improve on the work of those previously.

Collaborative: a coop 

Like a co-op, but without membership. While code authors may still own copyright on their code, by providing an open license, assets are kept public and the user community can offer improvements, fixes, language translations, design improvements, documentation and so on. Eric S Raymond describes open source development as “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles”.

Democratic: a landslide 

Like a democracy where anyone can setup their own country if they don’t like the leader. Open Source projects have core maintainers who have final say over the suggestions and contributions from the user community but if they aren’t responsive, people can ‘fork’ the software and build their own ‘branch’. The content management system Joomla, for instance, was forked from Mambo, after its owners started charging developers big fees.


For the non-profit, coop or social enterprise sectors these principles dovetail with many values, and offer advantages. For the profit-world however, open source’s freedom around IP has created much debate about its strengths and weaknesses, with critics - and some companies whose models are threatened - saying open source projects offer worse support and less-developed user interface and documentation. In reality there’s a huge range in quality and business models - from a content system like Wordpress that powers 23% of the world’s websites (and made $45m in 2012) - to Wikipedia, where the ability for anyone to contribute is perhaps both its great strength and weakness .

What needs to be remembered, as the creator of the main open source license Richard Stallman says, is that it’s freedom as in ‘free speech’, but not necessarily ‘free lunch’. Some open source companies turnover hundreds of millions a year, and charge thousands for a user-license and support, while others depend on donations and goodwill. The community has depended on new business models, from crowdfunding (which helped build Facebook alternative Diaspora) to licensing features in the way Mozilla Firefox sells their default search box to Google.

Perhaps the most interesting part about open source is the contradiction woven into it’s heart: where it can be viewed as the idealogical end-point of both communism and of liberalism: it’s both both anti-private-property and anti-centralisation - yet it powers the hugely profitable private,and monopolistic digital economy. Either because of swimming against the current of free market capitalism - or in spite of - it’s proven remarkably successful at getting disparate groups of people who’ve often never met to collaborate on building something that no-one fully owns, but that frequently solves technical and engineering problems better than either the market or the state. 

And for that alone it deserves some attention.