I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of open source. Mostly just scattered musings relating to the things we, as makers of things, choose to open source, the things that we expect to be open source and the things we don’t.
In the WordPress community, and many others as well, software is typically released in a non-proprietary format. I think this is a wonderful concept and am incredibly grateful to everyone who makes and contributes to open source software and to those who work to further the idea of doing so.
When it comes to software though, we are accustomed to open source often being a standard. At least that is the case for the communities which I associate myself with. I expect much of the software that I use to be open source and when faced with a choice between multiple applications, I will always be inclined against any proprietary solutions.
But lately I have been imagining applying the concept to creative works other than software. Of course, this is not a new idea, only looking at things in a new light and applying new labels.
Thinking beyond software
What other creative works could realistically be open sourced? Do any examples already exist? What would happen if the concept were applied in new arenas? These are examples of the questions that have been rolling through my mind. I did think of some answers to them.
A meal to me, is a creative work. It is an end that has a means. I don’t know the means and, as a non-cook, don’t particularly care. But my wife is an excellent cook and, if served a meal at a restaurant, may conjecture about the ingredients and methods used to produce the dish. But that information is not provided. We are not able to manipulate the meal, reproduce it, alter it or do anything with it but eat or send it back.
Imagine what it would be like if the recipes for meals at a restaurant were “open sourced”. Think about that for a minute. You as a consumer could choose whether you wanted to pay someone to make the meal for you or produce it yourself. You could produce the same meal and alter it to your liking. You could even produce the same meal and serve it to guests or customers of your own.
This line of thought is also fun when taken to the rest of the food industry. Imagine if all food items at the grocery store from bread to ice cream to Hot Pockets to Pepsi provided their recipes freely to anyone who wanted them. Imagine what impact that would have for the businesses producing those products and also what impact that could have for the consumer. I find it highly intriguing.
Of course open source does exist in the food industry. Recipes for meals are distributed everywhere which are great examples of an open source creative work. Just the other day I was at dinner with my wife, mother and sisters who all enjoy cooking and they were talking about how there were some recipes which they liked but needed some modifications. I then explained to them that in the programming world we would refer to that as “forking” which, to those who don’t know, is when you take someone else’e project, duplicate it and modify it to make it your own. I’ll do this often with things like WordPress plugins which I like but do not do everything I need or just don’t do it the way I need them to. Needless to say, they liked the idea of having a perfectly suitable verb for describing this repurposing act.
Imagine you’re listening to a song and like everything about it except one element like the vocalist’s voice or the use of expletives or the volume of the cowbell being too low. Now imagine it being possible to simply open up the source for the song, adjust the volume of the cowbell and then save your new, improved version. Would that be cool? What impact would that have on us and those who produced the music?
I love thinking about a world where colleges openly shared things like their learning resources, syllabi, grading rubrics and everything else used in the process of educating students. We as learners could examine all of it before committing to a course or even a college. Learning institutions could learn from each other. Students headed towards college could adequately prepare for the lessons in store. I don’t know how different things would actually be in the end but all parties having an open mindset and holding everyone else accountable strikes me as radically different.
In the open source world, we don’t guard very much. We embrace the idea that we’ve been given a lot and should freely give back. We recognize the rights of others to do whatever they want with what we give or sell them. I’m always amazed at how open and giving everyone in the WordPress world is. All those who distribute code, write educational blog posts, make tutorial videos, share advice at WordCamps and meetups, and generally help each other in countless other ways.
There do remain a few things though, which most everyone still guards. These are the things I’ve mostly been thinking about lately. Certainly there are items besides software which we could theoretically distribute openly which would benefit others. Things like our contract templates, SOPs, intake forms, sales scripts, policies and countless other materials which help us run our businesses. Open sourcing things like these has been done before by some. I’ve thought about it myself but mostly haven’t found the time.
But there is still one thing that I can think of which no one shares. It occurred to me as I was conversing with someone about a project we were considering starting. To us it seemed like an excellent idea for a product which could be very popular. I immediately wanted to get some advice on the matter from some people I respect in the industry. But the person I was conversing with naturally warned me that if we are not careful with this idea then those with more experience and resources who hear of it could take that very idea and develop the product before us. That really got me thinking. I thought about how that logic really didn’t apply just to ideas but to everything. If you share something openly, be it the recipe for a meal, the blueprint for an invention, the code for a plugin, the raw audio for a song, or even just the details of an idea you have, it can be taken by someone else and used for their own purposes. You will gain nothing and they will gain something.
Admittedly, the idea of disclosing my ideas to the world for anyone to do what they want with does make me uncomfortable. I’m still trying to figure out why. I have no problem whatsoever spending dozens of hours developing some WordPress plugin and then freely giving that away to anyone whether there is a demand for it or not. For that I have no reservations whatsoever. But for some reason, my original idea for that plugin is kept close and protected so that no one besides myself and those I trust can know of it until I have completed my work.
So what am I getting at here? Honestly, I’m not sure. I may be musing aimlessly and entertaining only my own mind. Or perhaps I’m just discovering what so many already understand: open source is a broad movement and can apply to more than software. And maybe there are levels of openness we have yet to explore, like opening up our ideas. Who knows?
What do you think?