Open-Source Software is software that includes access to the source code when it is distributed. It is possible to use, modify and distribute it. The source code is something that you rarely get to see in regular software.

In the early days of computing, software was typically delivered with the hardware purchase, when you bought the hardware they provided the software along with it, and this software was normally provided in such a way that the source code was available, allowing users to fix bugs and expand the application.

Universities were at the forefront of computing, and they would share their knowledge, and changes to the source code were openly available to others. Over time, however, fewer companies would allow changes to the software, and this was gradually hidden from the users.

Long before computers and software existed, an early model for sharing software was provided by the automobile industry. In 1895 George Seldon patented a design for an automobile, which incidentally he never put into production, and then in 1899, he sold the patent to William C. Whitney of the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC). Seldon and Whitney began charging other potential car manufacturers the sum of $15 in royalties for each vehicle constructed. They also put a minimum payment of $5,000 into the agreement. Collecting royalties was quite successful at first and the duo managed to negotiate a royalty of 0.75% of the price on all cars sold by members of the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers. In 1905, Seldon also commenced the formation of his own car manufacturing company in Rochester (Seldon Motor Vehicle Company).

However, Ford Motor Company, a rival car manufacturer formed in 1903, who you may have heard of, together with four other companies, decided to try and overturn the patent. Seldon and EVC filed a patent infringement, and a legal battle was fought, that lasted 8 years. Eventually, Ford and the other manufacturers formed a new organization called the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, which set up a cross-licensing deal between all US car manufacturers, which allowed them to research and set up patents, but these patents were shared among all the companies at no cost. This sharing agreement looked remarkably like how software was ultimately distributed. Sorry about that brief diversion into automobiles, but now we move back to software.

Early Free Software

The first true example of “Free and open-source software” was developed by a division of Remington Rand (UNIVAC). This system was called the A-2 System. This system was launched by Remington Rand in 1953. In this system, source code was provided by Remington Rand and customers who made modifications were asked to submit these modifications to UNIVAC. A remarkably similar philosophy to the later Free and Open-Source Software.

Free and Open-Source-Software may be freely licensed to use the software, and then copy and modify it as they wish, so that the software will gradually get better.

IBM mainframe software also was distributed with the source code as part of the package. User groups were set up to promote the exchange of modified software. The IBM 701, which was IBM’s first commercial scientific computer, had a user group called SHARE.


SHARE was formed in 1955 by a group of IBM 701 users in the Los Angeles area. It gradually became wider in its aims and incorporated several other IBM systems. SHARE incorporated the SHARE library into which was placed source code from IBM and modifications made by users. Eventually, a branch was opened in Europe (1966) This lasted until 1994 when it was dissolved, and a new European IBM Users Group was formed called GSE. SHARE was one of the main predecessors of Open-Source software.

The Exchange of software became very much easier when the forerunner of the Internet, ARPANET, was created and linked Universities and software developers.

Commercial Interests Forced Change

Operating systems and programming language compilers had undertaken an evolution that shifted the balance between hardware and software costs. Software production costs began to rise. The industry began to bundle the software and hardware together, including the cost of producing the software into the hardware price. This allowed them to recover the increasing costs of developing software. However, there we smaller software companies setting up to produce rival software which both better suited the needs of some users. Obviously, users were not too happy with paying a higher price for hardware and software bundles, when all they really wanted to do was buy the hardware, and purchase software elsewhere.

In January 1969, the US Government filed an Anti-trust case (the United States vs. IBM) which stated that budling manufacturers' software with the hardware was anti-competitive. This changed the landscape of how software was distributed and resulted in most software became an item that was sold with very restrictive licenses.

Software Becomes Copyright

In 1974 the position of software changed radically when a US commission decided that a computer program was like any other literary work and therefore could be copyrighted. We had now moved far from the early days when universities freely modified and shared software quite legally.

In the late 1970s both AT&T (Owner of Unix) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) started enforcing copyright, trademarks, and licensing agreements. By 1983 even IBM had stopped distributing source code with its software products. Software became commercial.

A Reaction to the Move Away from Free Software.

Upset that he could no longer access source code as he once had, Richard Stallman took the stance that this was ethically wrong and founded the GNU Project in 1983. This project existed so that people had the opportunity, if they so wished, to run their computers using free software. This project was developed in 1985 into a more formal structure and called the Free Software Foundation. In 1989 this resulted in the first GNU General Public License (updated in 1991). These licenses allowed those who so wished to distribute software in a way that allowed the freedom to use and modify software, but only if the new version was published with the same license.

There was now free software available through this route but there was still no free operating system available. This brings us to Linux.

Linux and Other Key Software

In 1991, Linus Torvalds began the Linux project with the Linux Kernel. This was not published under the GNU Public License but was released as a source code that could be modified freely. This was changed with the second release when it was moved to a GNU General Public License. This was the first totally free operating system.

In 1996, Linux included some proprietary software. This meant that Linux was no longer 100% free software. This prompted the Free Software Foundation to release Linux Libre, in 2008, where all the proprietary software had been taken out.

There are many versions of Linux available today and the operating system has grown. I the English-speaking world one of the versions, Ubuntu, has become very popular.

In the latter years of the 1990s, many businesses were launched that we based on websites, this period also saw the rapid growth of free software to run web servers. This period saw the Apache HTTP Server become a major force in publishing websites.

Open Source Arrives

The title open Source was penned on February 3rd, 1998. It was at a conference in Pala Alto in California, and the attendees decided it would be useful to have one single term that distinguished software that took the same approach as Netscape when they released their source code from “free software.” The OSI was formed in April 1998 as both an educational and stewardship organization.

The founders of the organization were Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens. The organization was created to implement what has been discussed in Palo Alto. One of the first projects undertaken by the OSI was to draft the Open-Source Definition and create OSI licenses. By Late 199 the OSI has succeeded in publishing its first licenses. In 2005 the organization became truly international with Directors from Europe, South America, India, and Asia.

Open Source Today

Open-Source Software has had a long journey and has had periods where it was in ascendancy, and periods where it had almost disappeared. Today, Open-Source Software is seen as the future and even some of the proprietary software companies that most opposed it have started to change their views.

At times in the past, it was seen as an inferior alternative to proprietary software. Today there are many large organizations switching to Open Source and moving away from the former big names in proprietary software. There is a realization that when Open-Source Software is released, many independent developers are able to scrutinize and modify the release, whereas with proprietary software a small team of in-house developers is the only ones able to examine the source code.

Volunteers are motivated to help improve Open-Source Software and this can lead to a situation where Open-Source can be the superior product. For example, the Open-Source Libra Office may well be superior to the current Microsoft 365 Office program. The dedicated volunteers working on this program are constantly adding new tools and features, and of course, it is free.

Image source: