The Point of Open Source

When and where it matters

July 25, 2023

If you’ve read my post on why I left Linux then you’ll know that I don’t think very highly of the free software movement, they are a bunch of silly people with a silly and unrealistic goal. I’ve stopped paying attention to them but the idea of having things open source is still valuable and something we should consider, but what should be open sourced is the question.

I began thinking about this because T-Rex Arms recently announced that they have open sourced all of their 3D gun scans and I listened to their two podcast episodes where they explained why they did it and the value of archiving information. T-Rex Arms’ main product is their holsters, and they spent a lot of time and money scanning guns and stuff so that they could make better holsters. You’d think that they’d be shooting themselves in the foot by releasing this data to their competitors who could then go on and possibly make a better holster, but they don’t necessarily see it that way, or at least they don’t see that possibility as a downside.

In their YouTube video announcing this they talked about how the golden age of aviation innovation took place at a time when things were much more open between the 40s and the 60s. A big motivation for this openness was the fact that we were trying to build the best plane to beat the Nazis. In this kind of scenario if you have a dozen companies working on the same problem and one makes a breakthrough it is a waste of time for that company not to share that breakthrough with others. If company A invents the jet engine and company B has people who would know how to improve that engine then company B needs to know how company A’s engine works. Innovation happens faster when information is shared, this was T Rex Arms’ motivation for making their files open source.

This principle of course applies to software, the world has greatly benefited from open source code, in fact I’d be willing to be that there is not a single major piece of software out there that does not take advantage of an open source library of some sort. If you are in the middle of a software project you’d be wasting your time if you were to spend it on writing a sorting algorithm, that innovation has already been done by someone else, either use a library with an appropriate sorting solution or copy and paste some code from Stack Overflow, focus your efforts on stuff that other people haven’t already done.

The problem with the free software people is that they take the open source idea to an extreme where it just doesn’t work. Let’s look back at T Rex Arms, this isn’t the first time that they’ve open sourced stuff, a while back they open sourced their designs for their sidecar holsters (which is an inside the waistband holster that could accept attachments for other things). Doing this not only opened the door for more innovation but it expanded the market availability of that style of holster. T Rex Arms did not have the ability to produce the amount of sidecar holsters and sidecar holster accessories that the market demanded, making that product open source was a pro-consumer move that lessened the product’s scarcity. This principle doesn’t apply to software, as with any digital information, has no real scarcity. T Rex Arms didn’t have to lay off any employees when they open sourced their stuff, if Microsoft open sourced their word processor then they would have entire teams of developers looking for new employment.

Back when I was studying to become a software developer this idea presented a serious moral dilemma for me. How could I expect to get paid by a software company to write software if I held the belief that all software should be free and open source? I couldn’t because unlike almost every other industry the source of software is the product. You can open source a car and still make money because very few people have the tools to build a car from scratch, you can’t open source software and expect to make money because everyone has a computer that can compile the source code. And contrary to what the communists would have you believe there is nothing immoral about making money, it is a sign that you are providing value to the world and essential to providing for a family in the modern age.

And now that we’re on the topic of money an interesting question to ask is if something’s source is paywalled is it still open source? The free software people would probably argue “No” but in practice this question doesn’t apply to software because once the wrong (or right, depending on whose side you’re on) people get their hands on the code it will become free regardless of the will of the original developer.

Let’s take a look at Joel Salatin’s book Polyface Designs. It is a large book containing plans for just about all of the custom animal shelters and whatnot that he uses on his farm along with some reasoning as to why he made things the way he did. With the plans in this book you have the information to build a farm just like Joel’s. The book is $95, is the information in it open source? I’d say yes, the important part of open source information and ideas is that it is shared with the public in some way not that it is free. You are not entitled to another person’s labor. Besides if you actually intend to use the information in Polyface Designs then a $95 expense is the least of your concerns.

I invite you all to take some time to examine and possibly reconsider your understanding and stance on the concept of open source information. I think the free software people have done a lot of damage to this idea, examine for yourself what they get right and what I might be getting wrong. What should be open source? Should people be forced to make their work open source? If so who should do that? What does open source really mean? Is it a sin to use proprietary software? Is it a sin to keep secrets? How can one take advantage of open source information? These are all questions you should seek to answer yourself, as you should with just about every question in your life. Don’t adopt a belief or practice just because some “based” person on the internet says you should, rationalize your own beliefs and when appropriate seek God’s help in doing so.