Starting Points For Learning About Open Source
by Phillip Rhodes
Posted on Wednesday August 27, 2014 at 02:44PM in Technology
I (Phil) have recently been asked to speak on a panel discussing Open Source Software and issues regarding intellectual property, OSS licensing, patents, and how recent changes have affected the Open Source world, etc. This makes sense, given that everything we do at Fogbeam Labs is Open Source, and we make participating in the OSS community part of our mission and core values. But I'm no legal expert, and there's plenty I don't know about the legal issues in this sphere, and there are licenses that I don't know much about (esp. the lesser used ones). So I decided to do some "boning up" on the topic in advance, and remembered that there are quite a few resources dedicated to this topic, which are themselves "open source" (or at least freely available).
So, I thought I'd throw together a list quickly, which may be useful to anyone who wants to get an overview of what this "Open Source" thing is all about, or who wants to deepen their understanding of OSS licenses and related topics.
First, we have the absolutely classic The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond. This book deals with the fundamental dichotomy between how software is produced in the decentralized, distributed "Open Source" model, and how it is produced in a rigid, top-down, bureaucratic organization (like most software companies). Note that the linked page includes both the text of the book (including foreign language translations) and comments by the author and links to other discussions and comments by other observers.
Fundamentally, if you want to understand the Open Source world and the mindset of the people who populate it, this is required reading. No, not everybody agrees with everything esr has to say, and yes, this book is somewhat dated now. But it has been so amazingly influential that it's become part of the very fabric of this movement.
Next up we have Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing by Andrew M. St. Laurent. This book focuses specifically on OSS and Free Software licenses, and includes a comprehensive analysis / explanation of all of the important and widely used licenses that you will encounter. If you have ever wondered "what do the mean when they say that the GPL is 'viral'" or "what's the problem with mixing code that's released under different licenses" or something similar, this is your book. It's not a law textbook, but it covers the legalities and legal implications of OSS licensing for laymen quite well.
Another excellent title covering the legal nuts and bolts of Open Source licensing is Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law by Lawrence Rosen. Rosen has been a high profile participant in legal aspects of Open Source for years, and has written a great book to help people understand the interaction of law and software. This book and the aforementioned Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing collectively cover pretty much everything you could want to know about licensing and legal issues (to the extent that such a thing is possible. There is still a lack of case-law and legal clarity in certain areas).
Another excellent book, especially for those leading - or who would lead - Open Source projects is Karl Fogel's Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project or "Producing OSS" as it's known. "Producing OSS" covers the nuts and bolts of running an Open Source project and actually shipping software. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) there is a lot more to running a successful project than dealing with code and tech issues. Karl's book deals with the various "soft" issues that projects face - dealing with volunteers, creating a meritocracy, understanding how money affects the project, etc. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is, or wants to be, an active participant in any Open Source community.
And last, but certainly not least, we have the Architecture of Open Source Applications series. In these two books, the creators of dozens of popular Open Source projects explain the inner workings of their projects, and reveal the architectural details that made them successful. If you value learning via emulation, this is an amazing series of case studies to learn from.
And there you have it folks - a virtual cornucopia of Open Source wisdom collected over the years. If you have ever wanted to develop a solid understanding of how Open Source works and what it's all about, this is a great place to kick off your journey. And, of course, feel free to post any questions or comments here.
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