Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Last Saturday, my blog was about anticipation of a coming cultural clash between the Internet and the "real" world. Over the next few weeks, I'd like to devote periodic blogs to exploring this subject in greater detail.

To begin, let's talk about open source software.

Wikipedia puts it simply by saying that the open source movement "advocates unrestricted access to the source code of software." In other words, programmers working on a particular project under an open source license publish their work online where other programmers can review it and make additions, corrections or changes. Essentially, the project becomes a massive group effort of unrelated people who work on it because they either have an intellectual interest in the subject or a personal interest in the outcome.

The philosophic opposite of open source software is closed source--or proprietary--software. Under closed source development, programmers closely guard their secrets, permitting few people to see what they have developed for fear someone will steal their work. This is obviously the traditional method used by inventors for centuries and to which we are all accustomed.

One of the strongest advocates of open source development is Eric S. Raymond, a computer programmer and libertarian. In 1997, he presented an essay entitled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (TCATB) at a meeting to discuss open source. In true open source spirit, that essay (with updates) is still available online by simply googling it.

In TCATB, Raymond contrasts the two development methods. He describes proprietary development (closed source) as "the Cathedral." All roles are distinct and clearly defined within a hierarchy in which employees are privy to information on a need-to-know basis. It is very centralized with responsibilities assigned and managers in place to ensure that implementation occurs.

The flip side of closed source is, of course, open source. In TCATB, Raymond describes open source development as "the Bazaar." He paints open source as "a babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches." Roles are NOT defined and the users of the code are treated as co-developers. He recommends frequent releases of the source code so that others may review it, test it and look for bugs. In his abstract on the essay he says, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." What he means here is that, when the source code is made available for examination and testing, the bugs are quickly discovered and corrected.

Does this sound familiar? It should. This is the theory on which Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is based. Anyone can post to Wikipedia. The entire system depends upon many users and volunteers who make corrections to erroneous entries. Wikipedia is an enormous experiment in open source theory.

Why am I bringing this up? Because, at its heart, many of the legal challenges relating to the Internet over the past five years have been clashes between open source and proprietary thinking. Think of Google's effort to copy library material or William Bright's recent legal woes over downloading subway maps onto iPods.

As more and more information/material becomes available online, more and more legal battles arise between those with legitimate proprietary claims and those seeking to make even more information/material available to the public.

We'll talk about this more in another blog. In the meantime,

I'm just musing . . .

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