This is the golden age of open source

We're in the golden age of open source, not a 'post-open source' society. More than ever, we must take its definition seriously

Matt Asay is dead wrong to call the current era of the software industry "post open source," as he did in InfoWorld last week. We are currently in the open source age, enjoying all the practical flexibility that open sources licenses bring. What may be confusing him is that people are no longer obsessed with arguing about software freedom -- they take it as given.

Asay claims "'open source' doesn't really matter anymore." His own words and affiliations prove he's mistaken.

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First, this is the age of open source, not the age after it. Asay says so himself: "Open source, after all, powers the most important software today, driving big trends like cloud computing, big data, and mobile ... Open source today is simply how we write software." Open source matters today more than ever, in the way it has always mattered since the term was coined in 1999: in practice.

Open source is not defined as a form of argument or by debate, but by the simple, practical step of creating a licensing benchmark as the Open Source Initiative did in 1999. OSI was not interested in arguing the philosophy and ethics of software freedom; it took them as read and created the Open Source Definition. That still helps developers today know the software freedoms that guarantee the flexibility they need to collaborate are protected. They can be sure that "OSI Approved" on a license means it's safe to collaborate.

When Asay says "software matters more than ever, but its licensing matters less and less," he is wrong. Today more than ever software is being developed and maintained collaboratively. For that to be affective, there has to be a minimum of friction -- permissionless governance leading to confidence for developers.

This is especially important for distributed development. As Asay himself writes, global teams are an important value that open source brings to development -- a hallmark of the open source age. Yet it is impossible when the friction is too great. Friction arises whenever a developer has to ask someone else for permission to proceed, has to check they have the right to use the code, has to be in a business relationship with a particular company to proceed.

You don't create that permissionless environment by having no rules and no tools. As I've explained before, failure to specify a license ensures that no permissions are granted in advance and all uses require the explicit permission of the developer. The lack of licensing on GitHub I've previously observed will likely remain high because so many people use it as a store for their work, as they once used SourceForge. Neglecting licensing for the copyright due to ignorance will be with us as long as GitHub permits it.

But projects where developers collaborate -- especially from a commercial perspective -- depend on OSI-approved licenses to create a low-friction environment where permission to innovate is given in advance. Ignoring licensing is exactly the wrong move; insisting on OSI-approved licenses is more important than ever. That's why, instead of dismissing open source as meaningless, as Asay does, we need to double down.

We're in the age of open source, where every activity depends on open source software and every decision about new software has to explain why it's not open source if that's the case. Wrongly assuming that open source flexibility is present when it's not is disastrous for developers and the businesses that employ them. Now, more than ever, we must take open source licensing seriously.

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