There are many ties between the Open Source movement and OpenFarm. Although our intention is to empower anyone to be able to grow the plants they desire, there is a larger concept that we have adopted as an organization. Many people have vague notions of what Open Source is (and isn’t) and I hope to expand the understanding of Open Source, especially as it pertains to OpenFarm, to Freedom, and to Accessibility. In other words, I’d like to explain why we put the “Open” in OpenFarm.
The Open Source beginnings
The Free Software Movement
Since the birth of the internet, and even before then, programmers had been writing programs. They were simple at first. Like your calculator, they were doing relatively basic things by todays standards. It made sense that if a developer came up with a way to calculate something faster, it should be used in every sensible application. Some believed that this sharing and freely reusing of code for the greater good was a basic right. Others saw $$$ to be made from better code. “We can totally sell this,” they thought. They made their own software (or used what was already out there) and following the standards of intellectual property rights they licensed this code. The restriction of use and monetization of code was prominent in the 80’s, until a group of a programmers started advocating for non-proprietary software. This group of ethical developers were tired of receiving software that was locked, software they couldn’t improve or share, software that was not transparent, whose functions remained mysterious because they couldn’t view the “source code“. Under these conditions, the Free Software Movement was deemed a social imperative by morally inclined programmers across the globe. The Free Software Movement’s aim was to guarantee software liberty, and to allow collaboration and building from others work. The power of this movement is seen in the case of the calculator that can calculate faster. Such a calculator should be used by doctors and rocket scientists so they can do their work better. They shouldn’t have to reinvent a new calculator every time they come across a different problem to solve. They should be welcome to employ current technologies, or iterate and improve upon existing technologies in a way that suits their work. You can find and use someone else’s code and move on to the important work you’re doing, or you can write entire libraries of code on your own, code that has been written thousands of times already. When looked at in this way, you really see how efficient free software is.
The Free Software Movement, however, had some followers split from it and form the Open Source Movement. The reason why and the distinction between the two movements is subtle. The Free Software Movement encourages making software free for moral reasons, while the Open Source movement encourages making software free for practical reasons. Free Software was off putting to many businesses and consumers because of its politically charged philosophy, and because of the ambiguity with the word free (libre or gratis?). Open Source became popular thanks to the terming of the software as “open” instead of “free”, and thanks to its focus on pragmatism instead of moral ideology. Both promote sharing, openness, software liberty and access to source code. Most Open Source software can even be defined as Free Software, and vice versa, so for all intents and purposes, Open Source and Free Software are the same.
What the Free Software and Open Source Movements are saying is that source code is like DNA. To reach the complex level of life we’re at today, it required many generations of organisms to share their DNA in order to adapt to or improve their functionality in their environment. If the amoeba in Earth’s original primordial soup had placed a proprietary license and use restrictions on its DNA, it may have impeded thousands of years of evolution that eventually lead us to human beings today. We have genes and physiologies that are similar to many organisms that may be deemed of lesser complexity. In the same way, much of the complex software of today is built up from adaptations and combinations of source code from prior, often simpler, programs.
How comfortable are we with making genes and DNA proprietary? With allowing corporate control of life’s essential building blocks? The internet is another environment, one that fosters creativity, interconnectivity, and information sharing. How comfortable are we with proprietary source code? With allowing corporate control of the internet’s essential building blocks?
The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Some believe the importance of Open Source lies in the way it is developed. Software source code can be viewed after all the work has been done, or it can be viewed as it is written. It can be top down, or bottom up, in a grass roots kind of way. There is a concept in software development known as the Cathedral and the Bazaar. This is an analogy for two models of software production. Cathedrals have a hierarchy where order is disseminated from the top, downwards to its followers. A bazaar is like an open market, where order is decentralized. It represents the bottom up approach. OpenFarm would be like the bazaar in this analogy because anyone can write code, anyone is able to see our bugs and offer fixes. We answer to the people, and respond to the people. There is a notion called Linus’ Law that given enough scrutiny, all problems become visible and therefore readily fixed. We believe in that.
Gratis vs Libre
Every language has points of ambiguity. English is no different, with the unfortunate ambiguity between two words we absolutely love. We love free, and we love Free. That is to say, we love zero cost and we love liberty and freedom. This is where other languages can help us differentiate the two. Gratis, a derivative of Latin, encompasses the notion of zero cost, where Libre, also a Latin derivative, encompasses the notion of promoting liberty.
Many people are thrown off by Open Source (and especially Free Software) being free. Although many Open Source projects cost the user $0 while also promoting the freedom to use, redistribute and manipulate the source code, the inherent definition of Open Source doesn’t mean the end product using the source code is Gratis. It will inherently mean Libre, but not Gratis. An Open Source product may be sold, but if it is truly Open Source, then someone could access their source code, replicate their product, and then distribute it freely.
Parts of software could be Open Source, like Facebook for example. They regularly use Open Source code, but we don’t have access to their entire codebase to be able to see where our data goes and how it is being used. They are free but they don’t promote freedom. They are Gratis, but you lose Libre. Certain Open Source licenses allow for the adoption of Open Source code into proprietary code. Some may argue that this promotes liberty by letting anyone do anything with the content, while others argue that it impinges on liberty if such a company copies the content and puts a proprietary license on it.
Open Source doesn’t mean no profit
As long as the source code is “open” or accessible to the public it is Open Source. You only need to be libre, not gratis, to be Open Source. You can still sell an Open Source product you’ve made, but so can others. You can’t be Open Source and charge people to view the source code. This “closes” your code to anyone without expendable income. If it is good software, with brand recognition, or is used in tandem with other methods to generate revenue, Open Source can turn a great profit.
It can be used as a way to market your product. Distribution costs are low, and if you have wide adoption of your software with compelling premium features many originally gratis users can be upsold to become paying users.
Open Source can be a way to reduce maintenance costs and draw upon the support of well documented and highly visible code. If a user sees a bug, they can fix it. If someone wants to translate features into another language, they can contribute that.
Open Source can be a good way to gain market share. Like iPhone’s iOS and Samsung Galaxy’s Android operating system for example. iPhone is proprietary and slow to adopt certain changes, while Android is fueled by an Open Source community, giving people the freedom to improve the product for everyone who uses it. You can also look at Wikipedia versus traditional encyclopedias, like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is built from Open Source software, and the content is crowd sourced, just like OpenFarm. Wikipedia fosters community involvement and is readily accessible and editable. They have over $52 million in revenue for 2014, while the Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer in print.
There are many software license types to keep lawyers employed, from Open Source, to Free Software, to Proprietary Software. I’ll spare you the details, but you can find them on the Open Source Initiative website, or on TLDR Legal among other places. There are three common types of software licenses: proprietary, copyleft, and permissive. Proprietary means use of the software is restricted and modification or redistribution is often prohibited. Copyleft is interesting because it has a cascading effect on all software that adopts it. The freedoms granted to a copyleft license must also be extended to the derivatives of that software. For that reason many developers are hesitant to use anything copyleft, because it may not be compatible with the current license they’re using, and you’ll never have the option to make it proprietary. Then there is a permissive license, such as the MIT license. It is more readily adopted because you can do whatever you want with it, or its derivatives. OpenFarm uses the MIT software license.
What is more freeing, to forever remain free in the way that a parent codebase’s license dictates, or letting you choose how to use and license the software? This is the distinction between copyleft and permissive.
Pros & cons of Open Source
There are many positive aspects of being an Open Source project. As far as being gratis is concerned, there will be a wider adoption of the software, and an increased incentive to stay competitive. An Open Source project will attract more volunteers, and can therefore be money efficient. It also promotes mission driven objectives that supersede financial gain. Our goal at OpenFarm is to create a structured database that lets people grow things with ease. If someone else does that better than us, we are happy! This means the true goal for society has been achieved. Our goal wasn’t to be the next fashionable startup, or to get rich making a website. We genuinely want to change the world in a positive way, and Open Source speeds us towards that goal.
There is this false dichotomy between collaboration and competition. Both are fostered with Open Source software. There is collaboration with other developers who share our goals and want the same positive outcome we do. There could be competition, but it wouldn’t make much sense for someone to clone our site. If they did, and made it proprietary, they’d have to make more money than us to recoup their costs to maintain their site. We have a community of developers and systems of feedback that make listening to the needs of our users efficient. Something someone could do more effectively along the lines of competition would be to make a niche site based off our codebase, and draw away the fringe users. For example, a similar site could be created and dedicated to sea vegetables because OpenFarm doesn’t yet have the supporting features for that. If we remain responsive, however, valuable features from spin-off sites could also be contributed back to OpenFarm.
Once an open Source project exists, it is less attractive to make a proprietary competitor. There is a community out there making improvements and creating something that inspires them, and that gets many people to voluntarily contribute. Open Source wins over time against super funded software because people, like you and I, want freedom. You can dump money into a proprietary project, but the organic growth of the Open Source version, which is more efficient, will eventually overcome it. Open Source, and also true of OpenFarm, relies on contributors, and there will always be contributors as long as people have ideals for freedom and as long as people have unmet needs. If you think of any other pros, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
There are a few opponents to Open Source who point out some drawbacks. The average business mind will tell you that you are foregoing your intellectual property rights, and inviting competition into your market. Others say that Open Source is not strict enough, or doesn’t hold up to higher moral standards. Many in the Free Software Movement make this claim since Open Source software can be made proprietary, and since Open Source separates itself from moral judgement of software. If you can think of any other cons, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
The race of technological advancement
Who is wining the race?
There is a race happening, everywhere and all around us. Technology is racing ahead at a million miles per hour, and those who steer technology find themselves steering society. Who is in the drivers seat? Is it you? A community you respect? Is it your government, or perhaps a deep pocketed corporation? Everyone is racing for different reasons. The status quo philosophy where intellectual property is money, and money is power, is removing people from the race. Intellectual property in the social realm is slashing people’s tires and telling them they can’t race. “Oh you’ve got a cheaper way to produce and distribute that medicine that I have the patent for? Well I have lawyers.”
Who wins with Open Source?
With Open Source, everyone and anyone is encouraged to race because we’re all on the same team. Let’s all race for social improvement, and whoever gets there first we high five! You and I win with Open Source, because our community wins with Open Source.
OpenFarm is Open Source
If I have the knowledge of how to grow a plant, and growing that plant allows us to continue living, then when you come to me asking for that knowledge, it’s evil to keep that knowledge from you! This is a taste of our philosophy. We want to embody openness, and allow sharing of some of the most important information in the world!
OpenFarm is Open Source and always will be. Everyone can access our source software files and our data for zero dollars (gratis). Our software and content licenses give you the freedom (libre) to copy, modify and redistribute the work in any way you see fit. OpenFarm is for everyone. That’s our promise to you!
2 thoughts on “What Open Source Means to OpenFarm”
Thank you for the above excellent explanation- much appreciated.
I have one question- Your (valuable) service is free and gratis, so how does your organisation meet its financial obligations?
Thanks for the feedback Piero! We are currently meeting our financial obligations through the crowd funded campaign we ran on Kickstarter. We also have an excellent group of volunteers that maintain the site and contribute in many other ways, ranging from legal advice to media management. A few volunteers on the business development team have been posed the question, “What happens when the kickstarter money runs out?” and we are surveying our options.
We may take the route of Wikipedia, and have donation drives, or we may ask our members to pay a membership fee on a sliding scale (including the option for a $0 membership). There is also a potential to obtain grant money, but that is only attractive for us in the short term. There are quite a few options out there, it’s just a matter of finding the ones that align with our values.
So in short, we don’t know yet but are excited to experiment and see what works for us!