Open Source and the Spirit of Unrestrained Participation

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The free sharing of ideas and technology comes from a spirit of unrestrained participation and good will.

“We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” Those are the words of Dave Clark, who was involved in the early days of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Not every digital innovator is interested in making billions. Technical pioneers like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds and Tim Berners-Lee distributed their ideas freely. Behind this generosity is a mindset and spirit of community that has fueled innovation for decades. (To learn more about different types of open-source licensing, see Open-Source Licensing – What You Need to Know.)

Open Source and Open Ideas

I have used the term “open source” in the title because it is a commonly used term. But the gist of the article is somewhat broader. From the earliest days there have been those in the computer industry who have been willing to share freely their knowledge and ideas to the broadest of audiences. We cannot presume to know their motivations, nor should we try to psychoanalyze them here, but it is clear that in these cases some inclination other than the desire for monetary gain comes into play.

Some may find it easy to be judgmental of those who have sought to capitalize on claimed intellectual property rights. Of course, market forces drive innovation. But when nineteen-year-old Bill Gates distributed his “Open Letter to Hobbyists” claiming that they were stealing his BASIC software, he managed to ruffle a few feathers. In the free software and open-source community, another dynamic is at play. It may be difficult to put a finger on, but we can take a look at how things have transpired. (For more on the open-source movement, see Open Source: Is It Too Good to Be True?)

RFC 1: The Beginning of a Dialog

In the early days of ARPANET, a small group of graduate students was formed to determine the next steps. Steve Crocker from UCLA was their leader, and he created a communication and documentation system that would innovate and standardize the protocols of the internet. It started with Network Working Group Request for Comments 1 (RFC 1): “Host Software” on April 7, 1969.

Crocker would later call the document “forgettable,” but thirty years later his contributions were praised in RFC 2555: “30 Years of RFCs.” Vint Cerf wrote that “the act of writing RFC 1 was indicative of the brave and ultimately clear-visioned leadership that he brought to a journey into the unknown.” Crocker himself wrote of “the spirit of unrestrained participation in working group meetings.” Today the organization formed from the working group is called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and it is comprised of thousands of technical professionals worldwide.

In the commemorative RFC, Jake Feinler described how the RFC system was to be established:

  • There would be a working group of implementers.
  • Ideas were to be freewheeling.
  • Communications would be informal.
  • Documents would be deposited and distributed freely.
  • Anyone with something to contribute could come to the party.

The significant TCP/IP protocol stack came from these documents, and it became part of a military directive. The mission of IETF is “to influence the way people design, use, and manage the internet.” The collaborative effort took hold and produced the internet environment that we have today.

Individual Contributors:

Richard Stallman and GNU

In his excellent book “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson noted that Richard Stallman was often likened to an Old Testament prophet. He resisted the “evils” of proprietary software and became the leader of the free software movement. He created the GNU General Public License to distribute freely his GNU operating system. Stallman was a free software crusader.

Linus Torvalds and Linux

“Greed is never good” according to Linus Torvalds. He wanted to name his new software “Freax,” a novel elision of the words “free,” “freaks” and “UNIX.” Torvalds’ operating system eventually took the name “Linux,” a concession to ego rather than greed. Despite a $5,000 student loan debt, Torvalds announced his OS kernel on the MINIX newsgroup on October 5, 1991, and began releasing it for free. He eventually decided to use the GNU General Public License.

Tim Berners-Lee and The World Wide Web

As a consultant at CERN in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee found he needed a way to improve collaboration among many thousands of researchers. So he created a computer program he called “Enquire,” named in deference to a Victorian almanac called “Enquire Within Upon Everything.” Over time, Berners-Lee created a suite of tools that included Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) in a system of links that he would call “The World Wide Web (WWW).”

Berners-Lee put the Web into the public domain. “Tim’s not in it for the money,” a colleague wrote. Like Torvalds, Berners-Lee released his idea on an internet newsgroup. “If you’re interested in using the code, mail me,” he wrote.

Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia

Berners-Lee was inspired by an old almanac; Jimmy Wales tried to emulate “World Book,” the encyclopedia of his childhood. His solution was a crowdsourced online publication called Wikipedia. The impact of these efforts is evident to anyone who has done internet research. Isaacson calls it “the greatest collaborative knowledge project in history.” And it is entirely free.

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given access to the sum of all knowledge,” Wales wrote. “That’s what we’re doing.”

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

In 1997, Eric S. Raymond presented an essay at a gathering of Linux enthusiasts. In his influential work, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” he discussed 19 lessons learned in his experience as a software developer. In a section called “The Social Context of Open-Source Software,” Raymond covers points 18 and 19:

18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

19: Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

He considered the concept of “egoless programming” that was proposed in Gerald Weinberg’s “The Psychology of Computer Programming.” And he noted that the Linux project successfully used “the entire world as its talent pool.” Here was the spirit of unrestrained participation writ large. The freewheeling had gone global.


The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is an example of the kind of open development process that began many years ago. Richard Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985. Space does not permit to describe the vast world of free and open-source efforts that have sprouted from the fertile soil of the early technical communities.

Why would anyone want to give away the knowledge and methods that they have worked so hard to develop? Who knows? For Torvalds, there was the influence of the social-political leanings of his parents. Stallman saw free software as a movement and a mission. Berners-Lee may have been influenced by his religious background. And the thousands of engineers worldwide who participate with organizations like IETF, OSI, and FSF? Let’s just chalk it up to this wonderful “spirit of unrestrained participation.”


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David Scott Brown
David Scott Brown

Throughout his career, David has worn many hats. He has been a writer, a network engineer, a world traveler, a musician.As a networking professional, David has had a varied career. David started out troubleshooting frame relay and x.25 with Sprint, and soon moved to Global One, the international alliance with Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom. Since then, he has worked for many national and multinational network providers and equipment vendors, including Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom, Equant (Global One), Telekom Austria, Vodafone, o2/Telefonica, ePlus, Nortel, Ericsson, Hutchison 3G, ZTE, and Huawei.As a writer, David's portfolio includes technical articles, short stories,…