Open source. Open access. Open society. Open knowledge. Open government. Even open food. The word “open” has been applied to a wide variety of words to create new terms, some of which make sense, and some not so much. This essay disambiguates the many meanings of the word “open” as it is used in a wide range of contexts.
Open source. Open access. Open society. Open knowledge. Open government. Even open food. Until quite recently, the word “open” had a fairly constant meaning. The over-use of the word “open” has led to its meaning becoming increasingly ambiguous. This presents a critical problem for this important word, as ambiguity leads to misinterpretation.
“Open” has been applied to a wide variety of words to create new terms, some of which make sense, and some not so much. When we started writing this essay, we thought our working title was simply amusing. But the working title became the actual title, as we found that there are at least 50 different terms in which the word “open” is used, encompassing nearly as many different criteria for openness. In this essay we will attempt to make sense of this open season on the word “open.”
Opening the door on open
The word “open” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very old one in the English language, harking back to Early Old English. Unlike some words in English, the definition of “open” has changed very little in the intervening thousand-plus years: the earliest recorded uses of the word are completely consistent with its modern usage as an adjective, indicating a passage through or an access into something (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016).
This meaning leads to the development in the fifteenth century of the phrases “open house,” meaning an establishment in which all are welcome, and “open air,” meaning unenclosed outdoor spaces. One such unenclosed outdoor space that figured large in the fifteenth century, and continues to do so today, is the Commons (Hardin, 1968): land or other resources that are not privately owned, but are available for use to all members of a community. The word “open” in these phrases indicates that all have access to a shared resource. All are welcome to visit an open house, but not to move in; all are welcome to walk in the open air or graze their sheep on the Commons, but not to fence the Commons as part of their backyard. (And the moment at which Commons land ceases to be open is precisely the moment it is fenced by an owner, which is in fact what happened in Great Britain during the Enclosure movement of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.)
Running against the grain of this cultural movement to enclosure, the nineteenth century saw the circulating library become the norm — rather than libraries in which massive tomes were literally chained to desks. The interpretation of the word “open” to mean a shared resource to which all had access, fit neatly into the philosophy of the modern library movement of the nineteenth century. The phrases “open shelves” and “open stacks” emerged at this time, referring to resources that were directly available to library users, without necessarily requiring intervention by a librarian. Naturally, however, not all library resources were made openly available, nor are they even today. Furthermore, resources are made openly available with the understanding that, like Commons land, they must be shared: library resources have a due date.
The twentieth century saw an increase in the use of the word “open,” as well as a hint of the confusion that was to come about the interpretation of the word. The term “open society” was coined prior to World War I, to indicate a society tolerant of religious diversity. The “open skies” policy enables a nation to allow other nations’ commercial aviation to fly through its airspace — though, importantly, without giving up control of its airspace. The Open University was founded in the United Kingdom in 1969, to provide a university education to all, with no formal entry requirements. The meaning of the word “open” is quite different across these three terms — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these terms use different shadings of the word.
But it has been the twenty-first century that has seen the most dramatic increase in the number of terms that use “open.” The story of this explosion in the use of the word “open” begins, however, with a different word entirely: the word “free.”
Speech, beer, and puppies
In 1983, Richard Stallman announced the GNU Project (a recursive acronym meaning GNU’s Not Unix), a “complete Unix-compatible software system,” which he announced he would give away for free (Free Software Foundation, 2014a). In 1985 Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support the developing free software movement that coalesced around the GNU project. As Stallman himself discovered, however, “free” is itself an ambiguous word, and so the FSF found it necessary to define what it means for software to be free. According to the Free Software Definition, four essential freedoms must exist for users of free software:
Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
The Free Software Definition defines the “free” in free software as being about liberty, not price: it is consistent with the principles of free software to sell copies. What makes software “nonfree” (proprietary) is if it restricts any of the four essential freedoms, thereby exerting control over the user. As Stallman writes, “you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’.” (Free Software Foundation, 2014b).