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Back to Basics: What Is Open Source Software?

OSI goes on to explain, in its rationale, that one "can't evolve programs without modifying them. Since our purpose is to make evolution easy, we require that modification be made easy. In other words, the specifications are final, until they aren't final."

Still, OSI doesn't specifically disallow the distribution of code in raw form only, requiring only that a programmer be able to modify the program, and that's enough to scare some end users away from compiling-or installing-the open-source code on production machines. So the consulting services offered by programmers and integrators continue on a steady growth curve.

Another way that companies make money is to maintain an internal branch of source code, modifying it and releasing only portions of it back into the open-source community, or releasing it at a much slower rate to maintain a competitive advantage.

Open, Closed, or Somewhere In Between?
If you think the concept of open-sourcing software code for previously commercial products and then restricting particular use-or releasing code back to the open-source community at a slower pace-sounds like a gray area between fully open and fully proprietary, you're not alone.

The practice is more rampant in recent years, as companies hope to score a PR victory while also benefiting from the open-source community's willingness to code for free. The practice is often self-justified by the company as a way to protect its patents, for which they will also often maintain separate versions-known as branches-of the core software source code for continued in-house development.

These branches, like any other open-source code, are expected to be returned to the community within a reasonable time, but large companies seem slow to release the code from their in-house branches, giving the company a competitive edge in what is supposed to be a community effort.  This has been true of companies like Apple, whose Darwin open-source version of its Macintosh OS X software is often several months behind the commercial version, meaning that the company benefits from the open-source community's rapid turn-around on particularly vexing code issues.

For Google's part, it has shown a willingness to rapidly return open-source code to the community. The WebM FAQ says Google will maintain an in-house branch of the software code, even while the open-source community spends time optimizing the current code into a variety of branches.

"We'll maintain a separate branch of the code, however, for bold new ideas that could alter the specifications," the FAQ says. "If there are significant improvements to warrant a new revision we might adopt them, but only after careful consideration and after discussing suggested changes with the WebM community."

In other words, as OSI says, the specifications are final, until they aren't final.

The Philosophy Behind Open Source
But what guarantees are there that the open-source code remains free? For that we have to look beyond software programming and into software philosophy. The primary proponent of free software is the not-for-profit Free Software Foundation.

Established on the premise that free (and open-source) software can match the level of quality of commercial or proprietary software, FSF has undertaken the joint steps of providing a highly popular open-source license as well as creating a repository for free software builds and branches.

FSF publishes a license, called the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), which it says is "the world's most popular free software license, and the only license written with the express purpose of promoting and preserving software freedom." 

GNU has been used for many years, and is somewhat akin to the Creative Commons license for works of art; GNU provides a way to designate ownership, thereby allowing restrictions on use to be explicitly lifted.

"FSF holds copyright on a large proportion of the GNU operating system," an FSF FAQ states, noting FSF's goal of providing a fully free operating system under the GNU brand. "We hold these and other free software assets to defend free software from efforts to turn free software proprietary."

As part of its strategy, FSF says that they "collect thousands of copyright assignments from individual software developers and corporations working on free software, register these copyrights with the U.S. copyright office, and enforce the license under which we distribute free software."

Why copyright the code as an original work? According to FSF, it's the only way under the current copyright and patent system-which it claims is broken and in need of heavy modification-to "ensure that free software distributors respect their obligations to pass on the freedom to all users, to share, study and modify the code."

How does all this affect the streaming media industry, beyond the short window of time in which Google ventured into new open-source licensing territory? In practical terms, over the next few months, the quality of open-source video codecs will be established; couple that with the open-source server and online video platforms like Flumotion and Kaltura, respectively, as well as Adobe's open-source initiatives in the video player space, and it's easy to see how streaming media could become a prime battleground between commercial applications and open-source alternatives.

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