Co-opting open source's good name

Is O'Reilly & Associates bending the definition of open source as it promotes a book on the subject?

Published May 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last month Al Gore riled free software fans by declaring his campaign Web site part of the "open-source" movement -- even as the site employed Microsoft software to serve up its pages. But you could forgive him; he probably had no idea what he was talking about. On Tuesday, however, a company that should have known better fell into a similar trap -- abusing the term "open source" in the service of its own marketing efforts.

Computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates announced that it was "open sourcing" its recent compendium of essays, "OpenSources: Voices From the Open Source Revolution." Henceforth, read the press release, the entire book would be "freely available (or 'open-sourced')" from the O'Reilly Web site.

Just one little problem -- "open source" doesn't mean just giving people something for free. Much more significantly, the term refers to the right to muck around with the actual source code, to allow people to make changes as they so desire. That's how open-source software development works. As the official Open Source Definition states "the mere ability to read source isn't enough to support independent peer review and rapid evolutionary selection. For rapid evolution to happen, people need to be able to experiment with and redistribute modifications."

Most people, Richard Stallman aside, might agree that a book is a different animal than a computer program. So Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly & Associates, has a defensible point when he argues that "unlike computer source code, you don't want people changing the primary source material."

But if O'Reilly & Associates don't want people futzing with the source, then maybe the company shouldn't call what it is doing "open source." As John Gilmore, one of the founders of the open-source software and services company Cygnus Systems, noted in an e-mail to the Free Software Business mailing list, "Open Source has nothing to do with making frozen and unmodifiable images available over the Internet ... There sure are a lot of people trying to claim they are 'Open Source' while reserving all sorts of important rights to themselves alone."

As Gilmore later pointed out, "O'Reilly is one of the few companies who actually understand open source -- I'm surprised that they made this mistake. It was probably an accident."

Representatives of O'Reilly were not available to comment. But even if the wording of the press release was an accident, it could still have unfortunate consequences. One such consequence might be disillusionment on the part of the people who are actually doing open source, as they see the symbols of the movement co-opted for marketing purposes. As Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative (which owns the "open source" trademark), said, "Errors like this have the potential to do a lot of damage."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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