To our elections official stakeholders, I want to cover a point that seems to be popping up in discussions more and more. There seems to be some confusion about what "open source" means in the context of software used for election administration or voting. That's understandable, because some election I.T. folks, and some current vendors, may not be familiar with the prior usage of the term "open source" -- especially since it is now used in so many different ways to describe (variously), people, code, legal agreements, etc. So, I hope to get us back to basics here.
To start, let's not argue or bicker over who has a better definition than who about the meaning of "open source project" or "open source license" or even "open source software." And we will dispense with a nuanced discussion about "open source" vs. "disclosed source" for now. (There is a huge distinction to discuss another time.) Instead, to just figure out "open source," I offer a suggestion for how you can determine whether a particular body of software is "open source" or not. In my view, it is a bright line that is not hard to find, at least in most cases.
Here goes, with an example of the well known open source Apache Web Server (one of the most commonly relied upon platforms for publishing web sites -- as of last February Apache was used by 38% of the Web, or some 352 million sites).
- Go find the source code for the software. For example, the Apache source code repository is on the Apache Software Foundation's web site, here.
- Go read the license. Again, you do not need to read the whole thing or be a lawyer to do this. You mainly just need to search for a particular word: "royalty." For example, in the Apache license you can see that you are granted a "perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable copyright license" to use the software in a surprisingly large (for non-lawyers) range of ways. The main point here is that you don't need to pay anybody to use the software, and that the source code is not secret.
And certainly there are other issues that are relevant, and may not be clear -- for example, whether it is OK to copy the source code, use it to make something, and sell that "something." That's an important part of "open source" for some -- but hardly all -- people.
But the bottom line is money. If you follow the steps above, and you can tell that usage definitely does or does not require payment, then you've determined whether "open source" describes the software that you might like to use - at least for the typical usage of the term in the world of non-proprietary software.