Who owns open source software?

When I hear something like Linux is open source, does that mean the “public” owns it? Who decides the official release version of an open source piece of software? Does it mean anyone can contribute? Who decides which code from the public gets integrated?


All open source means is the public can inspect it. Oftentimes it also means its owner will accept contributions to it, but not always. It’s rare that a free software project is not also open source, but open source in itself has nothing to do with software freedom and is often owned by a proprietary interest in total control of what actually happens with the codebase.


There are many kinds of freedom when it comes to “free” software. In almost every case, there is a defined or assumed software license in affect. You can see many of these on the site:
The license in effect for a piece of software defines how you may use it. But let’s be perfectly clear… if you have the source code, and the means to build it yourself, and no intention to distribute, then it is highly unlikely anyone will know what you do with the software in your own privacy. So using it to learn and play around on your own is not really covered by the licenses. The licenses are more about if and how you can distribute or even sell your modifications.


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I feel the need to point out that the original post was about open source, not free software. Your reply about free software without carefully delineating the difference IMO perpetuates the confusion leading to the original poster’s question: do software licenses govern open source software? Almost always, and their permissiveness vis a vis freedom has nothing to do with whether or not they’re open source, but rather whether or not their owner/licensor has granted such freedom. The only licenses of free software that are restrictive, to my knowledge, are restrictive in the opposite direction of guaranteeing forward freedom by the parties who make use of the software, to prevent them from profiting off others’ work while denying to others the freedom to use it.

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Well the issue is this:

  • all open source software is, by the very nature that I have the source, free to be used in privacy (if you give me the source code, you lose the ability to control how I may use it in privacy)
  • not all “free to use” software is open source
  • pretty much all software, free (in any sense of the word) or not, comes with a license, implied or otherwise

The issue is that the word “free” is overloaded, and has many meanings. Are you able to use it without paying, are you able to use it without restriction, are you able to repackage it into another form and sell it… and on and on and on… This has historically been referred to “free as in beer” versus “free as in freedom” when some people are discussing which sub-meaning of the word free they wish to refer to.

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Freedom afforded by privacy through source access really has no bearing on the question of open source ownership, which is the original poster’s question. It’s perfectly valid to point out, but open source confers no freedom of ownership in any substantive sense of the word.

I did already note that while relatively rare, free software is not always open source.

I don’t seek to counter anything in your post, per se, but to clarify its limited relevance to the question at hand because without that clarification I think the discussion is otherwise less well-served, in deference to the original poster’s direct question and the ambiguity by which it tends to arise in others, as well.

Software is not really like many other goods a person will come into contact with. By its very nature, software is useless unless copied. You received it on a media (downloaded it, copied from a USB stick, a DVD or some other means) and almost immediately copied it onto the computer that would run it. To run it, the computer needs to copy it from the installation location into its RAM memory to start execution. As it executes, it will be copied all over the CPUs caches and registers.

That’s fairly pedantic, but it brings up a point. To be able to use software, you need to be able to copy it. The limits on this freedom to copy are defined by its license, which is a legal construct, because we (as in society) haven’t really found an effective way to control the copying of it that doesn’t hinder your ability to exercise your rights to use it.

If you have a copy of the software, that you can build and execute, then in some sense you own or possess it. When we talk about piracy, we’re talking about you possessing something you don’t legally have the right to own, according to its license. So ownership, like freedom, is a word that is overloaded.

Open Source is also controlled by licensing, and by conventions of human co-operation. Linux is open source, some would say ardently so, because it rejects the inclusion of software which is not open source. This means you can see the source code, can download it, and build your own version for your own use. The stated purpose of this is trust. They want you to feel like you know what is going on in your computer, and that if something went wrong, you would have the means to fix it. The goal is that if you do fix it, you would share the fix widely so that all may benefit.

To share with others, though, you need to become part of the community. The community is just people, and like any group of people, there are personalities, leaders and trolls. The community has a bunch of rules and procedures to attempt to maintain order, and in general, to keep progress moving forward. It is this community, through their rules of engagement, which decides what/who is included and what/who is not.

For the purposes of the original question, “Who owns open source software?”, your equivocating ownership and possession frustrates any clarity on an answer. This is why I emphasized that open source is often controlled by proprietary interest. Insisting that possession confers ownership muddies the terms in this context because of licensing retaining control over rights, regardless of capabilities possession confers.

You’re conflating ownership with control, and I thought I made that pretty clear. There is a difference between what you are free to do at home, and what you are free to do in public. This is controlled by the license and by convention.

If you have a copy, you own that copy. I never said, or implied, that you could do whatever you want with it, but on your own PC, you are free to do as you choose with any software you have the source code for… there is no license on the planet [currently] that controls this. You could even have swap meets, where you help others download that source and install it on their PCs.

Additionally, there is nothing whatsoever that stops me from pointing a person to a specific copy of the source, and then providing my patch to be applied to that source. This is a form of forking, and there is no open source license that can reasonably restrict my ability to tell others with access to the source how to make my modifications.

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You’ve conflated control with possession, which is why you believe me to have conflated ownership with control: licenses often explicitly exclude ownership rights by possession of a copy, which is why controlling a copy has nothing to do with owning it, let alone any rights thereto, let alone use of it other than privately within the confines of the license. Again, the original post asked about ownership, and not control (or possession).

Should possessing a copy confer rights over it? Absolutely (and that gets into the right to repair movement). But the two are completely separate concepts, and often treated completely separately in the vending of software.

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This is more complicated that just that. It boils down to definitions again. There is a reason why this topic is the domain of lawyers. Open source means you can get a copy and do privately with that copy whatever the hell you please. A company considering open source but thinking they can control the private use of that software is engaging in wishful thinking. But this will vary for the definitions of open, control, source, copy, private, etc.

What it comes down to, based on the original question, is why is Linux called open source and who owns it. I am not going to try to legally define open, source, or own for this question. This is left as an exercise for the reader ro go read the applicable GNU license and try and figure these definitions out.

For some definitions of own, the world owns Linux. For other definitions of own, the community of Linux developers owns it. If you have a copy and are messing around in your basement, for that definition of own, you own it. Does that mean you can control how the world will use it… obviously not.

But how I take the meaning is this: The source for the core of Linux is available, you can download it onto your own private computer. While you have this source, you can tweak it, build and run it to your hearts content, without paying money or bowing to anyone else. If there is something that doesn’t fit your tastes, you can adjust it. (Assuming you know how.)

If you want others to like your tweaks, you have to figure out the community rules of engagement to share it with the world. My understanding of the license, however, say that if you make your changes also open source too, then you’re good to go.

Again, this all boils down expectations: The Linux community expects that if you started with something freely available, you will continue to provide something freely available… for some definitions of free, and available.

Actually it all boils down to what the Open Source license is. That’s what’s why so much ink is spilt over the merits of various licenses.

The GPL specifically says you can modify the code as you please and even use it for your own published projects as long as they are also licensed GPL. Except for that last “viral” clause I think that pretty much means you can do whatever the hell you want with it. Sounds like ownership to me.

There’s an old but good Triangulation with Eben Moglen on all this. If I weren’t in a hot tub I’d link it.


Thanks. I’ll look for it.

No, in fact: open source merely means other than its owners may inspect it. Oftentimes, open source owners also accept community contributions through liberty to download, modify, and submit changes.

As Leo said, and since the original question was about Linux, the GPL allows you to do whatever you choose if you have no plans to distribute. There is a difference between private use and public use. No one is telling me how do my private computing. There is no rule that can make me use or not use any source code I have in my possession on my personal machine in any way other than how I so choose.

I honestly don’t get where you’re coming from @philodygmn. I’m guessing English is not your native tongue, so maybe there’s a communication issue here.

Open Source code is always available for you to download, inspect, and modify as you please. Period.

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Oh? Huh. To my knowledge, it’s possible that open source is potentially available under terms allowing no additional freedoms beyond disclosure of source for the purposes of auditing and public verification. Is this not the case? Unless it’s not, the distinction between open source and liberty of any kind is categorical, and not merely contextual, is it not? This was why I’ve labored to emphasize how restrictive the relevance of open source is versus freedom. I see a lot of corporations declaring things to be open-source and getting a lot of undeserved credit toward freedom, instead, for precisely the ambiguity around the terms vis a vis culture responsible for the original poster’s question.

Really, in its strict sense, open source amounts to little more than crowdsourced labor for the benefit of the owner who may or may not accept any changes and retains all control over the ultimate direction of the project. Open-source and free software has historically been more common, but its importance culturally is due to the freedom aspects far more than being open-source, however impossible true freedom is without access to source-code.