Abstract: In the early days of information technology (IT), computers were delivered with operating systems and basic application software already installed, without additional cost, and in editable (source code) form. But as software emerged as a stand-alone product, the independent software vendors (ISVs) that were launched to take advantage of this commercial opportunity no longer delivered source code, in order to prevent competitors from gaining access to their trade secrets. The practice also had the (intended) result that computer users became dependent on their ISVs for support and upgrades. Due to the increasingly substantial investments computer users made in application software, they also became “locked in” to their hardware and software vendors’ products, because of the high cost of abandoning, or reconfiguring, their existing application software to run on the proprietary operating system of a new vendor. In response, a movement in support of “free software” (i.e., programs accompanied both by source code as well as the legal right to modify, share and distribute that code) emerged in the mid 1980s. The early proponents of free software regarded the right to share source code as an essential freedom, but a later faction focused only on the practical advantages of freely sharable code, which they called “open source.” Concurrently, the Internet enabled a highly distributed model of software development to become pervasive, based upon voluntary code contributions and globally collaborative efforts. The combined force of these developments resulted in the rapid proliferation of “free and open source software” (FOSS) development projects that have created many “best of breed” operating system and application software products, such that the economic importance of FOSS has now become very substantial. In this article, I trace the origins and theories of the free software and open source movements, the complicated legal implications of FOSS development and use, and the supporting infrastructural ecosystem that has grown up to support this increasingly vital component of our modern, IT based society.
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