Open Source Comes of Age

As of today (June 1, 2017), we've been talking about open source for exactly 19 years, 3 months and 23 days. The start date was February 8, 1998, when Eric S. Raymond distributed an open letter by email with the subject line Goodbye, "free software"; hello, "open source". What followed was a deliberate (though barely coordinated) effort by many geeks (including yours truly and this magazine) to make open source a thing.

It worked. In books alone, the result looked like what's shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Google Books Ngram Viewer: Open Source

I am sure that the line would have continued rising toward the sky if Google hadn't tired of scanning books in 2008.

Anyway, we succeeded. As both an concept and a practice, open source is embedded in technology, business, culture, government—you name it. In fact, it is so widely uttered, you might even call it mature.

But it's not, because making full sense of open-source development is still an uphill struggle, especially if you're an organization trying to manage it—especially in a world that still doesn't fully understand it, even though it gets talked about constantly.

This is why it's good to have help such as just came from Organization and Structure of Open Source Development Initiatives, a new report by Dalia Topelson Ritvo, Kira Hessekiel and Christopher T. Bavitz of the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School. (Disclosure: these are all colleagues through ProjectVRM and the Berkman Klein Center, where I am an alumnus fellow.)

The angle of the report is organizational, and the organizations it addresses are less those of the development efforts themselves than of companies that need to get some kind of handle—or several handles—on the simple fact that they already support open-source work, either by employing developers of open-source code or because they have a code base they would like to open up and release to the world. There are as many answers to What should we do? as there are companies and developers, which also doesn't make things easy. But there are controlling factors in the real world that can help guide decisions, even as the same factors can be deeply frustrating.

For example, taxes.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal