On the spectrum of openness
Source-availability is the prerequisite of all open source software.
This is an appendix to the openly written book called Open Source for Everyone.
When you read “the four essential freedoms” in The Free Software Definition by the FSF, you’ll notice two of the stated freedoms have a very important addendum: “Access to the source code is a precondition for this [freedom].”
We just don’t get very far without source code access.
This is further elucidated by one particular freedom that is not like the rest:
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Unlike the other ‘freedoms’, insight is not just a legal story, it’s the difference between knowing and not knowing. When we have insight, we have unlocked the possibility to do whatever we want with this code, legal or not.
If running some code would assuredly save a life, I have a moral obligation to run that code, even if I am not legally allowed to run it.
When the source code of an application is available for view, the most important job is done. The black box has been cracked open and added to the permanent archives of The Commons. The conditions may say “for viewing purposes only; no editing, copying, remixing or redistributing allowed” — and we will play along, provided the rules of the game seem fair at the time.
Access to freedom
Open source codes exist on a spectrum of openness. We can’t quite agree on what openness taken to its logical extreme (maximally open) should ideally look like. Is the MIT license (or its modern alternative, Blue Oak) the most open, since it allows practically everything? Or is the GPL more open, because it enforces continued openness downstream?
I don’t know the answer. But the modest beginning on the other end of the spectrum (minimally open) is simple and clear-cut: Open access to the source code.
As such, source code availability is the singular condition that necessarily precedes all other definitions and principles for free and open software. It is where the switch from closed to open happens, and the difference is literally night and day.
Source-available is the beginning, not the end
I’ve no idea how much more closed source software is running in the world compared to open source, but I’m guessing closed software is still in the overwhelming majority, to the tune of 70-90%. We can’t really know, because closed software is by definition kept secret from us.
Let’s say closed source software currently makes up 80% of all software, and open source software (including ‘free software’) makes up the remaining 20%.
Can we all agree that a great first step would be to turn the biggest possible chunk of that closed 80% into source-available code? Once we have insight into most of that 80%, we can commence our bickering over how much more open all these source codes ought to be. The steady march towards sustainable, maximal openness continues.
Source-available licenses are not encroaching on the market share of open source. For applications like Defold, Aseprite or EPPlus (listen to their story), traditional open source licensing simply wasn’t an option for them. Thankfully, source-available licensing enabled them to still exist on the spectrum of openness, rather than having to be yet another closed black-box for the sake of sustaining their project.