5376: Thougts on Open Source

Was reading this article by Terry Freedman (from our course syllabus) on the free market, online publishing, and creative commons (kind of) and also thinking about some of the ideas classmates (Carie and Brett, specifically) have been tossing about in regards to single-sourcing, code plagiarism and open source materials. (Okay, this isn’t really so much about single-source, but it’s connected to the larger conversation.)

Let me first make clear that when it comes to copyright and content, I think that Freedman’s right on in many ways–the concept of a “free lunch” is perfectly problematic for web authorship. Professional journalists who know their craft and have great skill should be paid for what they do, and there’s nothing wrong with being asked to pay for quality content. I think of a news item I heard on NPR this morning–users of Kodak’s online service can soon expect to have to pay a modest fee for storing their photos online; this could certainly soon extend to other services we’ve gotten used to, like free email (gasp!) bank access (remember when ATMs were free?) and networking sites (pay for FB? whoa. pay to Twitter? egad!).

This is all fine and good; sneaky, perhaps, to let us get used to a world of free email and social butterflitting, but certainly not without precedent. And we’re good capitalists, after all. But how does that compare with open source software and code resources? When does using open-source materials like Notepad++, Audacity, or Paint.NET become simple freeloading?

I think this is really worth comparing to CSS coding. CSS Libraries are places where you can basically copy/paste code for a bitchin’ three-column layout. No tutorial, just code. (Jeffrey Zeldman has some great comments about the future of open source in this video). At some level, there’s an expectation that the code, because at some point it really does become the same for everyone, should be free for all. But what I also see is the importance of sharing and community contribution (this isnot just in having read Andy Clarke’s book but also in following–and beginning to contribute to–conversations on assorted blogs and websites). “Giving to the community” is a very big part of the cultural rhetoric and ethos of CSS/Standards folks. You not only benefit by having access to what’s been shared already, but there’s also an expectation from that community that you’ll give back in some way.

This brings me to the tools (some of them are what Zeldman calls “blogging tools on steroids”) that we use. Open source software has the potential to just become a freebie, where slackers across the world can just download free sofware and use it to their heart’s content. But that’s not really the idea–the idea is that you work with the open source, yes, but you also modify it, perfect it, and send it back to the community (maybe with a plugin or a mod) bettered in some way. That, or you donate a little cash.

No conclusions today, just thoughts–but I think that one possible direction we might take this is that online, copying “free” code becomes plagiarism not merely when you use it without giving credit (because a lot of times that’s okay; unless Creative Commons licenses come in to play, but that’s another tangent), but when you fail to make some contribution back to the community.

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