Free/libre open source software (often referred to as FLOSS, FOSS, or OSS 1) exists to reclaim the ability to freely collaborate after the 1978 report from the United States’s Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (CONTU) and subsequent 1984 Third Circuit Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer case which rendered both compiled software and source code copyrightable 2.

This was a victory for corporations, who increasingly saw the sale of software as a major revenue stream and therefore FLOSS as a threat. While proponents of FLOSS cared primarily about the freedoms and creativity that open source software development granted them, the mechanism they used to push back against proprietary interests was legal: licenses that outlined the rights and responsibilities of developing and consuming FLOSS.

These licenses (and the definition of open source) revolved around the output of open source development, and that shaped the narrative of open source that still exists to this day. Little focus is on the social systems that produce open source software, which include the relationships, environments, and structures that underlie FLOSS. These social systems, often referred to as sociotechnical systems, cannot be separated from the output of FLOSS without fundamentally misunderstanding open source.

Sociotechnical systems are an integral aspect of the various ecosystems that comprise the overarching open source ecosystem.

It is helpful to frame open source as many different, interacting ecosystems. They evolve, respond to stimuli, compete, collaborate, have cultures, and follow norms. Actions that impact an open source ecosystem can have ripple effects beyond that ecosystem – and beyond the world of proprietary technology or even technology altogether.

Well-meaning initiatives or regulations can shift the open source landscape in unpredictable ways, and affect the ecosystem for years to come.

Bringing in experts with an understanding of complex networks and social sciences can help navigate these ecosystems, and provide insight into the ramifications of external forces.

Shifting the view of open source from the resulting code to the social systems that create the code is critical when driving towards long-term sustainability of technology as a whole.

  1. Major (or minor, depending on your perspective) differences exist between FLOSS, FOSS, and OSS; for the sake of readability this article uses FLOSS as the overarching term. ↩︎

  2. I am not a lawyer and none of this should be construed as legal advice. ↩︎