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Commentary: Open Source is not a verb

By Bill Weinberg on November 04, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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I am a linguist by training. Long before I delved into free software and was snagged by the quagmire of marketing, I pondered the marvels of morphology, the grimness of grammar and the splendor of semantics. It is only natural then that my wrangling criticism of industry-speak, in both technical and literary modes, is informed by ingrained linguistic sensibilities, descriptive and proscriptive. Given my background, I find it vexing when open source is used as a verb.

In my travels with OSDL, I frequently hear our eponymous Open Source employed as a transitive verb. As in "My company open sourced our product." Now, I am no petty proscriptivist. English is a dynamic, productive language in which nouns can become verbs, and verbs can return the favor. Consider the word source (n. from Middle English sours, from Anglo-French surse spring, source, from past participle of surdre to rise, spring forth, from Latin surgere). Today, source is as often uttered as a verb as it is a noun, as in the dreaded labor term, outsource.

What I find nettling is the presumption of what syntacticians call agency. In pragmatic grammar (as opposed to case grammar), the subject of a transitive verb is the agent that performs some act upon the patient or direct object of the verb. Dog [agent] bites [verb] man [patient]. The dog bites the man because it wants to, because it can. (Maybe a better example for software is "Cat throws up hairball"). But is it meaningful to say that the owner of a piece of code can open source that code, by fiat?

There are actually four distinct stages for source code, only one of which I consider open source. Many software suppliers, including Microsoft, take tentative steps down this four stage path, sincerely or disingenuously hoping to scratch the itch for openness.

The first is source code as documentation: the supplier of a binary product includes (or sells) source code that need not be buildable (technically or by license), supported, or otherwise even related to the binaries in question. Code is supplied to satisfy requirements for source escrow (typical in sales to government) or as a substitute for useful documentation or even for bed-time reading.

The second is source code as bait: the supplier of a binary product accompanies his product with full, buildable source code, but under a license that prohibits modification, redistribution or deployment of derived binaries. If you actually want to make use of the source code, you must negotiate a new license, with commercial terms, that allows you to modify, redistribute and/or deploy. This second scenario most closely matches the terms and motivations of Microsoft Shared Source. In defense of Redmond's fishing license, you should remember that even wriggling bait can be useful as documentation.

The third is source code under an OSI license: the supplier of a commercial software product makes source code available under a recognized open source license (BSD, GPL, Mozilla, etc.) and may even offer best effort support, accept patches and otherwise follow free and open source software project conventions. Conversely, even with an OSI license, the vendor may just take legacy code and throw it over the wall. This scenario most often applies to the open branch of a dual licensing business model and to as-is supply by hardware vendors of device drivers and other utilities.

All three of the above scenarios can be referents of the casually applied verb to open source. What is missing from the deep semantics of this shallow verb and from the actual scenarios is community. Without community, the source code behind open source is just a dusty tome, lifeless, static and unread.

The fourth and canonical scenario that embodies the true meaning of open source is a community of developers and users cooperatively building, deploying and maintaining project code. The source code for successful projects is most often released under an OSI license; GPL, Mozilla, Apache and BSD historically have been the licensing choice of the most successful community-based projects, including GNU, Linux, Firefox, Apache, and dozens of others.

If open source is not a verb, then where do open source projects come from? In the Beginning, was there Code? Or do projects spring, fully formed, from the shaggy heads of hackers like Athena from her Father? Or does open source pass through lengthy stages of evolution, undergoing incremental change, guided or unguided by its creator's hand? As it turns out, the open source creation mythos can take many different turns.

Certainly the (re)release of existing proprietary code as open source has engendered some very important projects: Proprietary Netscape became Mozilla and then Firefox (after several massive rewrites); NCSA HTTPd became the Apache server (after the application of countless patches); the BSD OSes derive from commercial ATT UNIX (after a rancorous lawsuit between ATT and my alma mater); Eclipse.org emerged from IBM's CodeSphere proprietary application development framework and OpenOffice from Sun's StarOffice. But the mere act of releasing source code under a reasonable license (as in the third scenario) does not necessarily result in a vibrant, or even viable open source community. Only time and maturity bring ubiquity, and just as often convey obscurity.

Dual licensing is a case in point. Developer communities around dual-licensed source tend to be small and by comparison to uni-licensed projects, relatively closed. They are of primary interest to users and application developers building on the commercial versions (pre-existing or not). Dual license code bases revolve around the development teams at the commercial owner/sponsor of the code , with restrictions on patch submission and rate of change. These strictures can be practical or legal -- commercial release cycles are seldom as aggressive as their open source counterparts, and over time it becomes impractical to allow drift (or full-blown forking) between commercial and open-licensed versions of the same code base.

Legally speaking, commercial project owners may not even have the right to integrate all patches into their commercial version code base. Re-released, re-licensed proprietary legacy code can share these attributes. The most visible example of such a self-limited semi-open community is the one that revolves around (Open)Solaris.

Independent, vibrant and organically evolved projects are common as the fish in the sea and birds in the air, and subject to similarly cruel forces of natural selection. As of this evening I count 132,386 registered projects on SourceForge.net, but how many will enjoy widespread adoption, deployment and community aggregation?

However, when the product of open source evolution does succeed, its triumph can be huge. Linux and GNU with their myriad sub-systems and utilities exemplify organic open source and provide model meritocratic communities. They "feel right" and provide archetypes for open and free software.

If, after my proscriptive linguistic harangue, you still insist on posing predicates with open source as a verb, at least refrain from using it transitively. Open source is not made; it is experienced by project teams, and by end-users; it is a process that code and people undergo together as a community. The fortunate among us can say, "our product/project became open source." The enlightened can say, "we open source." Can you?

Bill Weinberg is Senior Technology Analyst at Open Source Development Labs.

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on Commentary: Open Source is not a verb

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Get over it...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 04, 2006 06:52 PM
The English language is a constantly changing language.

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Donate, Disclose, Liberate

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch on November 04, 2006 06:54 PM
There are 3 types of verb people may have in mind when they use the GPL:

DISCLOSE: Those seeking to preserve source code visibility (Open Source) require the continued disclosure of source code for published works. They disclose their code and require published derivatives to be disclosed. This facilitates collaborative development.

DONATE: Those seeking to oblige reciprocation from anyone exploiting their published software (Gift Economists). They donate their code to the public and require the public to donate their modifications in exchange.

LIBERATE: Those seeking to liberate the public from restraint and limitations upon their freedom to use, copy, and modify published software. They publish their code specifically protecting the liberty of the public to exploit it and any published derivatives as they see fit.

I suggest GPLv2 is preferred by those simply aiming for source code disclosure.

I suggest APL/HPL is preferred by those aiming for reciprocation.

I suggest GPLv3 is preferred by those aiming to liberate the public.

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Re:Donate, Disclose, Liberate

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 04, 2006 09:36 PM
Open Source got verbed!

<a href="http://mckenzhi.iwannabefamous.net/weekdaylanguagegames1.html" title="iwannabefamous.net">http://mckenzhi.iwannabefamous.net/weekdaylanguag<nobr>e<wbr></nobr> games1.html</a iwannabefamous.net>

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Re:Donate, Disclose, Liberate

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 06:07 PM
As for today, GPLv3 has not arrived yet. It's currently in discussion. I assume you wanted to say that people using GPLv2 without the "or any later version" clause care less about freedom than those who do. Honestly, I see good reasons why corporations rather would not want publish their software under licenses that do not exist yet.

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Re:Donate, Disclose, Liberate

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch on November 05, 2006 08:57 PM
If I wanted to say that, I would have.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

Obviously no-one can use licenses that do not exist yet, but 'GPLv2 or later' permits GPLv3.

To some extent precluding the use of a successor license may indicate a lack of confidence in the FSF, or it may simply constitute a preference for a definite rather than an open ended license. No big deal.

However, the 'GPLv2 only' is being declared as wholly sufficient for the needs of the Open Source movement.

GPLv3 is motivated by those in pursuit of liberty for the public rather than simply ensuring the visibility of source code in published software.

In addition to copyright, the public's liberty is also liable to constraint by software patents and the DMCA (DRM).

Those favouring freedom will be migrating to the GPLv3. Those happy simply with source code visibility will stick with 'GPLv2 only'.

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congratulations

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 12:00 AM
You backdoored a windy discussion of FOSS licensing by splash-screening a personal bonepick with grammar misuse.

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Dont be daft

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 01:22 AM
If you are a linguist, you should know that there is no such thing as a formal definition of what is or what is not a part of the English language. There are no absolute rules. Like any human language, it is a continuously evolving entity.

But more to the point, it is perfectly normal in the English language for nouns to do double duty as verbs. Basically, using nouns as verbs is such a normal part of the English language that it is a part of English grammar, whether the high-and-mighty recognise it or not. And that includes common multiword noun phrases that have gained a separate meaning from the individual words, and thus become distinct nouns in their own right.

Instead of whining, as a linguist you should be studying - the use of metaphor in everyday verbing (as illustrated by words such as 'dogging' and 'bugging') in particular show that this is a rich seem that someone should be mining. And don't forget nouning (nouns based on verbs).

Can you even tell me which came first - 'to study' or 'the study', 'to smell' or 'the smell' etc etc. I wouldn't have thought so - those words have evolved in parallel as the English language has evolved, always maintaining those verb-noun links.

Of couse you don't need to take this from me. You could just try asking another linguist. Steven Pinker would be favorite.

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Re:Dont be daft

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 04:40 AM
The author is not trying to be a daft. He clearly states, “Now, I am no petty proscriptivist. English is a dynamic, productive language in which nouns can become verbs, and verbs can return the favor.”

I think the point of the article is the eventual use of “opensource” like a commercial buzzword term (similar to broadband, etc.). I think the author is arguing that the mere acts of taking a proprietary software product, changing its license, and releasing the sourcecode to the public does not “opensource” it, but rather is just the beginning. He is trying to say that opensourcing (for formerly-proprietary software) is a process, involving community participation.

The author is not trying to proscribe usage of the opensource for the purpose of keeping the English language static, but instead, he doesn’t want opensource to lose its true meaning and become solely a marketing term.

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Re:Dont be daft

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 05:05 AM
I agree almost completely with the above post. I just want to point out the story associated with the briefly mentioned word broadband (for those who might not know it).

The term broadband, as you probably know, is used as a buzzword, yet it has no definite meaning. This was not always the case. Once upon a time, electrical engineers and people studying signal processing used a term called bandwidth to measure the dispersion rate of a signal over a range of frequencies (more commonly, just the “width” of a peak in the power spectrum of an analog signal). The term baseband was used to denote the highest frequency limit of a signal, and information transmitted using baseband modulation is usually encoded in a very simple way. The term broadband described a digital signal whose rate was above the baseband.

So any transmission rate resulting from the simultaneous transmission of information along the same signal would be called broadband. Now, for a telephone line, the baseband rate is 600 baud. DSL lines most certainly exceed this by using multiple signals. But a 56K modem also transmits at 9 times the baseband, and therefore might be considered broadband. As most people know, however, broadband is currently used to indicated a “fast” connection. It has lost its originally meaning to a new meaning that is somewhat related to the old one.

If we let people use the term opensource willy nilly, I am afraid that it too will become a marketing term, and the orignal opensource community will be saddened.

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Re:Dont be daft

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 06:55 AM

I think the point of the article is the eventual use of “opensource” like a commercial buzzword term (similar to broadband, etc.). I think the author is arguing that the mere acts of taking a proprietary software product, changing its license, and releasing the sourcecode to the public does not “opensource” it, but rather is just the beginning. He is trying to say that opensourcing (for formerly-proprietary software) is a process, involving community participation.

Sure. What the hell's that got to do with linguistics?

And what's worse, his appeal to "linguistics" is fundamentally wrong. Any actual understanding of linguistics this guy might have had in his life must have been set aside in order to write this drivel.

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Proscriptivist?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 06:21 AM
It's prescriptivist. I might've assumes it was a typo, but he continually uses that word and its cognates throughout the article.

There is a very real difference between the words "proscribe" and "prescribe", and I would hope that a linguist would be aware of them.

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Re:Proscriptivist?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 02:53 PM
"It is only natural then that my wrangling criticism of industry-speak, in both technical and literary modes, is informed by ingrained linguistic sensibilities, descriptive and proscriptive."

Your failure to understand his intent has no bearing upon the fact that he used his words correctly.

de·scrip·tive: Concerned with classification or description.

pro·scribe: To denounce or condemn.

Pro`scrip´tive: Of or pertaining to proscription; consisting in, or of the nature of, proscription; proscribing.

Back to Engwish 101 with you!

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Re:Proscriptivist?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 04:03 PM
The problem here is that linguists do not classify themselves as descriptive or proscriptive. The classification is between descriptive and prescriptive, as in "prescriptive grammar".

Had you bothered to look up "proscriptivist" you would have found that the word doesn't exist so far as the lexicographic community is concerned. This is disconcerting in an article written by someone who claims to be an authority in linguistics.

A linguist whose primary intent is to condemn would be a waste of flesh and water.

<a href="http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003741.html" title="upenn.edu">http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archiv<nobr>e<wbr></nobr> s/003741.html</a upenn.edu>

Thanks for playing.

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He is a prescriptivist

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 06:52 AM
I am a linguist and the author of this article is just trying to be a know-it-all jerk. I don't care what he says, he a prescriptivist.

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Re:He is a prescriptivist

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 03:07 PM
I must say, I find this interesting. The author signed the article with his name which allows his name to be googled... like so

<a href="http://www.google.com/search?q=Bill+Weinberg&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a" title="google.com">http://www.google.com/search?q=Bill+Weinberg&ie=u<nobr>t<wbr></nobr> f-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&clien<nobr>t<wbr></nobr> =firefox-a</a google.com>

and of course you'll find items like... this:

<a href="http://www.linuxpundit.com/lp/about.html" title="linuxpundit.com">http://www.linuxpundit.com/lp/about.html</a linuxpundit.com>

or this :

<a href="https://www.cmpevents.com/SDw6/a.asp?option=G&V=3&id=425977" title="cmpevents.com">https://www.cmpevents.com/SDw6/a.asp?option=G&V=3<nobr>&<wbr></nobr> id=425977</a cmpevents.com>

so... Bill Weinberg lets us know who he is, and we can, relatively easily, do a quick background check on him.

Where-as... an anonymous poster like myself... has no signed name.

I wonder... whose more credible? The guy who can be researched? Or the anonymous guy who gives no proof of who they are or what their background is?

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why is...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 06:59 AM
an english major working in a technical department? that too with the bullshit title of "senior analyst."

this is precisely the reason why FLOSS faces so many problems - too many incompetent people fighting about the nitty gritty and derailing the movement off course.

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Re:why is...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 05:11 AM
Many people in linguistics are in fact quite technically proficient. For instance, Ohio State University has a very large Computational Linguistics program. Linguistics, even when offered as sort of a sub-degree under an English major, involves a much greater amount of technological ability than a typical English major is required to have.

Now, I'm not convinced that this guy is really a linguist, vs. just a guy who has taken a couple of English grammar classes, and I do agree that we have too much arguing over the irrelevant details, but I would not find anything amiss in a linguist working in a tech dept.

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This excludes many legit projects

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 12:17 PM
So what happens when I start some project, and write some really good code, release it under the GPL2 on sourceforge, and nobody cares. Nobody finds it interesting, and therefore there is no community. Is it then not open source?

IF we are going to be prescriptive, perhaps we ought to prefer the meaning embodied in the juxtaposition of the words "open" and "source". That is, source which is open! You can see the source, mess with it, change it, compile it, run the result, redistribute it, whatever. Thus, it is open. Open to viewing, open to do what you want with it. Open. And source.

You are attempting to make linguistics do a duty it was never meant to do. First, linguistics is not prescriptive or proscriptive (I'd regard proscription as a subset of prescription, but okay). As my fiancee's linguistics profs say, "If a word is used in a verby place, then it is a verb in that place." Second, even allowing for prescription from linguistics, at least make a sensible prescription, rather than simply conscripting the most readily available poor justification for your own political soapbox. There is no linguistic reason that the phrase "Open Source" implies anything about community. Linguistics would either say that it has the meanings that it is used for, or that its meaning should be derived from its component parts, as I said above.

I suppose you can perfectly legitimately argue that you think open source should only be applied to projects with a viable community. I'd disagree with you, but you could certainly argue that. You could also argue against the corporatization of phrases to form buzzphrases, and I'd probably be with you on that. However, making linguistics a whore to justify your argument constitutes a fallacy, which is avoided by responsible and honest people.

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Hey ...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 01:02 PM
I know Google is not a verb, but who cares when it is faster and more convenient to say like that?

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Re:Hey ...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 12:21 AM
Fifteen years ago, google wasn't even a search engine, but now it is. Time moves forward, things change.

If langauge had not changed and evolved, we would be be grunting like a caveman.

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Re(1):Hey ...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.83.114.246] on September 27, 2007 08:03 PM
huhhh? uhhh OOH OOH UNGA BUNGA OOHOOH!

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To all the commenter's

Posted by: Joe Klemmer on November 05, 2006 01:24 PM
STFU. The article was an interesting and fun read. The author wanted to make a point and he dazzled with enough verbiage to make it worth reading to the end. Can you say the same?


Ok, I'm going to bed now. Wake me if something important actually happens on here.

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You use your tongue...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 09:03 PM
...prettier 'an a twenty dollar whore.

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Open Source is not used as a verb

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 05, 2006 10:06 PM
Open Source is not used as a verb. "Open Source" is used as a verb.

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Wow

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 04:16 AM

Your linguistic education seems to have had some fundamental deficiencies.

In pragmatic grammar (as opposed to case grammar), the subject of a transitive verb is the agent that performs some act upon the patient or direct object of the verb. Dog [agent] bites [verb] man [patient].

Except when it's not so, right? To put it technically, one of the fundamental insights of grammatical theory is distinguishing the concepts of (a) the semantic role played by a participant in the situation described by a clause (agent, experiencer, recipient, etc.) from (b) the grammatical function that an argument to the clause's verb fills (subject, direct object, oblique object, etc.). This is because the relationship between these two aspects of grammatical organization is far from being one-to-one ("The garden swarms with bees," anybody?), is in fact variable across languages even in pretty drastic ways (syntactic ergativity à la Australian aboriginal languages like Djirbal), and can get really damn complicated (as in split ergativity, one of the hottest areas of research).

And this of couse pales with the fact that you invoke your linguistics education to somehow justify your issuance of usage prescriptions, and to propose what amounts to typical layperson superstition about language use (that by reforming language use, somehow, people's non-linguistic actions will magically improve). Nice, huh?

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Language log replies!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 06, 2006 01:50 PM
The good people at the Linguistics blog Language Log have posted <a href="http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003741.html" title="upenn.edu">a nice response</a upenn.edu> to this article.

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I disagree.

Posted by: Rich Steiner on November 07, 2006 07:05 AM
A program which is released to the public under an open source license and which is not snapped up by the FOSS community *still* has serious advantages over a program which is released without any source code:

(1) Someone can choose to legally view the code behind the program if they want to figure out how it ticks, and they know they won't be encumbered by various IP issues for doing so.

(2) Anyone is free to extend the program for their own use, and they are also free to release the new extended version to the public.

(3) Anyone is free to use the program as the basis for a new software project.

(4) If a bug is found, someone can legally make changes to the source and release a new version.

A program which is released as binary-only doesn't have any of those things in its favor.

In other words, FOSS doesn't *REQUIRE* popularity in order to be superior in some respects to non-FOSS software. A community is nice if you want a FOSS program to become a lever against other forms of software, but it isn't a hard requirement. IMO.

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