Understanding Pieces before Understanding Open Source

Using the term “open source” around non-intellectual property lawyers tends to elicit blank stares. I even got a few such stares at a recent Toastmasters meeting. People have heard the term. President Obama has been tossing it out there, along with “transparency,” but people don’t quite know:

  1. What “open source” means exactly
  2. Why, or how, it applies to them

Before we get to those, however, I’ve found it useful to break down the pieces of “open source” before explaining what it means.

One definition, using a Google definition search, defines open source as: “of or relating to or being computer software for which the source code is freely available.” Another definition goes a little further, saying “An open source program has its source code distributed allowing programmers to alter and change the original software as much as they like.” The important terms to remember here are “computer software,” “source code,” “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

Just about everyone knows what computer software is, thanks to the ubiquity of Microsoft Office. Browsers are also computer software, like FireFox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari. The various email clients, like Microsoft Outlook and Apple’s Mail, are also computer software. If you think about it, most of your computer interaction is with computer software.

What makes computer software work is the source code.

Source code is very much like language, like English, French, Spanish, Latin, etc. And just like language, there are many different dialects of source code. .NET, PHP, C+, C++, C#, AJAX, CSS, HTML…a seemingly endless list. You’ve probably heard about some of them. Browse the Web, you interact with PHP, AJAX, CSS, HTML, Javascript…probably more languages than you think.

You can see some of it, like HTML. In FireFox, for example, if you go up to View –> View Source, a window will appear full of what may look like jibberish:

<table border=”0″ cellspacing=”5″ cellpadding=”5″ width=”90%” align=”center”><a href=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/schedules.html”><img src=”images/courseSchedules2.gif” border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/syllabi.html”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/syllabiMaterials2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jcil.org”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/jcil2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/contact.shtml”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/contact2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a>
<a href=”http://www.jmls.edu”><img src=”http://www.citpl.org/redesign/images/jmls2.gif&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”” vspace=”2″ /></a> Welcome to the John Marshall Law School Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law website. The Center was established in 1983, and provides a formal structure for a wide variety of activities, including courses, conferences and continuing education seminars, scholarly publications, student organizations, competitions and other programs related to the field of Information Technology Law. We invite you to browse the website, the Center’s flashship publication, <a href=”http://jcil.jmls.edu/&#8221; target=”_blank”>The John Marshall Journal of Computer &amp; Information Law</a>, and to learn more about the <a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/it_ms.shtml&#8221; target=”_blank”>M.S.</a> and <a href=”http://www.jmls.edu/academics/it_law/it_llm.shtml&#8221; target=”_blank”>LL.M. programs</a> offered in IT and Privacy law.
For more information, please contact <a href=”mailto:”>Panagiota Kelali</a>, the IT and Privacy Law Program Coordinator.</table>

What is easily readable is simply text, and all the stuff around it is code. The code gives instructions, in this case to the Web browser, on what and how to display the text, just like symbols over letters in some in languages help you pronounce a given word.

The same is true for other software applications, like Microsoft Word. The code provides instructions to your computer, and other components, like a printer. When you bold or italicize something, the code in Word follows instructions given to it when you select those options, just like a link opens a different Web page when you click on it.

The code, the source, for Microsoft Word is hidden, however. It is not as easy as clicking View –> Source as it is in a Web browser. This holds true for Microsoft Office and any machine running Windows. The source is hidden; you’re not exactly sure what’s in it or how it works, and you can’t (legally) go into the source, tinker and make it do what you want.

Which brings us to the next two terms I asked you to remember: “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

Stay tuned…

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2 Responses to Understanding Pieces before Understanding Open Source

  1. As a non-IP lawyer that dabbles in computer programming and is the IT manager at my firm, I am one of the few that would not have stared blankly at you had you mentioned open source software, however, the above is one of the best explanations of open source for non technical folks (like most lawyers).

  2. Scott Jones says:

    Great piece, Gwynne! This is a very good primer for people just getting into Open Source. Many people assume that Open Source = Linux, but that is untrue. There are many Open Source tools that run on Windows and MacOS, and I hope you will continue to open peoples’ minds to these possibilities.

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