History and Culture













By understanding the roots, development, and norms of the free, open-source software community, a greater appreciation of the motivations, philosophies, and goals as well as the areas of agreement and disagreement of community members can be gained. Through this insight, comparisons of the intentions and values of developers of proprietary software and those in the free software community can be made.

Section Objectives:
  • Describe the origin and history of the free, open-source software movement.
  • Analyze the purpose of copyright and relate that purpose to educational pursuits.
  • Local developments related to free, open-source software on a timeline.
  • Identify procedures and norms for collaborative development.
  • Identify motivations and aspects of a gift economy.
  • Survey and map free, open-source software projects.
  • Speculate on the requirements to sustain free software development.
The Free Software Magazine gives you a look into the free software community, offering news, articles, how-tos, and discussion about free, open-source topics.

Eduforge supports a community of educators involved in open source software development and use. Visit the Wiki and Toolbox areas for examples of current work and links to other resources.

The free and opensource research community hosted by MIT provides a range of scholarly papers on various aspects of free software.

Groklaw is a source for the latest legal news related to the information technology industry and issues of copyright, licenses, and patents.

Given the pressure on school budgets, one might question the absence of free, open-source software in schools. Read some comments pro and con about free, open-source sofware at this site: http://www.netc.org/openoptions/pros_cons/comparing.html.

Suggested Activities:
  1. Read the overview and background material in the Themes section.
  2. Collaborate with classmates to construct a timeline of events and developments related to free, open-source software development.
  3. Visit SourceForge and review the categories of projects hosted on that site.
  4. In class, locate, install, and run a free, open-source software application of your choice. Introduce its use to the class.
  5. Identify opportunities to participate in free, open-source software development.



Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution assigns to Congress the power "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;" which is the basis for all copyright, patent, and intellectual property legislation. The framers of the Constitution worried that progress and innovation would be impeded if this right wasn't protected. Notice that the exclusive right is protected for authors and inventors - not publishers, music companies, or corporations that accumulate copyrights and patents in order to repress progress and innovation, often without meaningful reward to the creators. As an entire industry, with associated lobbyists, has grown up around the production and distribution of the products of "science and useful arts," the protection of the interests of large corporations has gradually supplanted the original intent of the Constitution. The idea of copyleft is meant to subvert this activity and create an alternative culture supporting "progress of science and useful arts." How have established proprietary software developers reacted to this idea? You might find the Halloween Documents to be interesting reading.

Academic Origins, Open Procedures, and Peer Review

The product of the intellect stems from academic pursuits and the culture of the academy. Among the characteristics of this culture are inquiry, systematic process, verfication, communication, replication, and extension of ideas, processes, and products. Sharing is a fundamental and essential practice in this culture. Through sharing, the entire community makes progress, but in order for this progress to be realized, full disclosure of the methods and circumstances must be communicated. In other words, the process must be open - open to inspection, open to understanding, open to verification and replication, and open to extension. The academy calls this process, peer review. Programmers simply say, "Show me your code." The refusal to share code, as Stallman recounts, is the impetus for dedicating his life to producing free software. Part of the freedom protected by free software is the freedom to view and understand the code. This freedom is simply a restatement of academic peer review.

Collaborative Development

Eric S. Raymond has cast himself in the role of anthropologist for the open source movement. Read his essays from the mid-1990s, which are now published by O'Reilly as the book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. As Raymond explains in his Introduction, the technical parts of the story can be skimmed while still following the main ideas. As you read, look for answers to the following questions:
  1. What is the Cathedral? What is the Bazaar?
  2. Who are the hackers? Where did they come from? List the names and the projects that these people are associated with.
  3. How are open-source projects managed? What is Brook's Law and how does it relate to software development?
  4. What is debugging? What is a beta release of software? Are there other types of releases?
  5. What part does the Internet play in open-source software development?
  6. What is the Noosphere? What does ownership mean in the realm of open-source software?
  7. What motivates people to participate in open-source software development?
Visit some of the major repositories of free, open-source software projects: SourceForge, the FSF/UNESCO Free Software Directory, freshmeat, and SchoolForge. See if you can draft an overview of the types of programs that are being developed and the locations at which developers are working. Locate bug reports for active projects and identify opportunities in which people can help with development.


The free, open-source software movement has developed over time. Both Stallman and Raymond have described some of the important events in the movement's evolution. Start a list of people, projects, companies, and events and arrange them in chronological order. See if you can find other chronologies of free, open-source software milestones.


Schematic of a Software Development Process
Flowchart diagram