Why Open Source?

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and programmers arguing with each other.

-Benjamin Franklin, probably

Open source has been compared to pie: everyone can try the pie, you can share the recipe for the pie, folks can modify the recipe, and they can serve it up at home anytime they like. It’s a good metaphor. And it’s hard to argue with the concept. Sharing is good. We covered this in kindergarten. Yay for open source.

But keep going. What if a person can use your recipe to sell pie? What if the pie is so popular that they end up opening a bakery, and then a chain of bakeries, and they become a billionaire, all using only recipes they got for free from bakers who worked their asses off purely for the love of baking? What if, after all that, they flip around, make some tweaks here and there, and then put a restrictive license on those recipes, saying that no one else is allowed to use them? Cackling, mustache-twirling, the whole bit?

Still on board?

We are.

Everything we make at Tiny Pixel is open source. Very open. We’re MIT or bust. Any developer, anywhere, can take our work and use it to do anything they want, as long as they note somewhere that the original work was MIT licensed. Microsoft could take something we wrote to create an SaaS that they charge hundreds of dollars a year for and not even tell us about it. Do it. Go wild, Microsoft. We’re flattered.

We operate this way with our work because it’s the way we operate in life. Collaboration, equity, accessibility, changemaking, community vibrancy — these values are in the very DNA of open source, as well as in the DNA of the organizers, artists, and changemakers for whom we do what we do. Requiring all Tiny Pixel team members to use MIT has ultimately meant that we only attract folks who share those values. There’s an implicit understanding that that spirit of collaboration and cooperation encompasses everything we do together, from peer programming to agreeing on a pizza order.

There isn’t a single developer out there who’s working in a vacuum; we’re all standing on the (now irreversibly rounded) shoulders of the coders who came before us, and we believe that gives us the responsibility to make our shoulders available for standing on too. And there isn’t a single web project that can’t or hasn’t been made better by another set of eyes and hands to help it evolve. That’s what open source is about: ensuring that every single thing we make is fully, freely available not just for others to borrow, but to help us improve.

Of course, there is some question here about freedom. MIT isn’t the only open source license; there are others, like the GNU or GPL, that have a slightly different definition of “open:” you’re not allowed to use the work to create something you then lock down with a more restrictive, or even fully closed source, license. One could argue that this is more in keeping with a certain spirit of open source. It keeps your work, and any derivative work, open for anyone to use — because none of them has permission to lock it down.

But one could also argue that it’s the MIT license that’s truly open, because everyone who uses it has exactly the same freedoms with your code that you do, including the freedom to create a derivative work with a more restrictive license. More freedom means more people using your code; more people using your code means your code gets better. The derivative code gets better. Ultimately, ideally, the whole web gets better, even if just a little bit.

Does it give us the warm-and-fuzzies to picture someone getting rich off of our work, using that money and attendant power to disempower others? Not really. But what does give us the warm-and-fuzzies is someone using one of our packages to create a beautiful, simple, easy-to-use email client for nonprofits, charging a monthly fee to cover their costs. The freedom to lock down the code, to charge a fee, allows the email client’s creator to devote their time and energy to making it work for everyone, not to maintaining seven side gigs to pay rent. Who cares if Tiny Pixel gets a cut? Our nonprofit partners get a useable email client!

We may not believe in the freedom of landlords to overcharge tenants, but we do believe in the freedom of the internet. Unqualified, no exceptions. Anything you see from Tiny Pixel is yours, mustache-twirling villain or not. Because at the end of the day, we believe that programmers, as a group, are generally intelligent, compassionate people who give a heck about collaboration and innovation. Go ahead and steal our pie recipe. Someone else will be right behind you, using our code to create the app that the bakery workers will leverage to unionize and seize control of the whole damn business.

That’s power to the people.