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Open Source vs. open source

There is a saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” Ralph is 100% accurate — where the consistency is foolish it is not worth worrying about. (Unfortunately, I often hear this quote with the words “a foolish” dropped; at least, many people seem to think that being consistent in writing is not that important. )

As such, I have always promoted consistency in using the term “open source” without capitals. Was that the right thing to do?

Seven years ago, when I began working professionally with free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), I was also working with a team that was promoting the open source methodology as superior and worthy of adoption. I was working with content that inconsistently presented the then-new term open source. I mercilessly eradicated all usages that capitalized it as “Open Source”, making it consistent across our group’s training and marketing collateral. I had other reasons for doing that, but the main one is to make the term non-marketing focused. When marketeers get their hands on a New Concept that has a fancy New Term, they like to put it in capitals. A practice which, in English, is reserved for things with proper names, i.e., a product. The product “Open Source Lite” could be made of “open source” but not of “Open Source.”

In other words, my express goal was to make open source a generic term.

Flash to the present, and I’ve been wondering if that was a mistake. Now that the term “open source” continues to be incorrectly applied to software and defending the usage has again come in to the spotlight, perhaps … perhaps a better approach would have been to use “Open Source”, trademarked the term for the OSI, and defended that mark at every turn.?Oh, yeah, that sounds like the proper open and free way to do things. What to do with this conundrum?

What sparked this post today was reading yet-another thought-filled document sporting mixed case (Open Source, open source) throughout the “finished” work. At this point, I feel I can chide someone properly for the inconsistency, but what is the right way for them to be writing it?

Add to this mix the habits of some non-native/multilingual English-using writers. When reading many works from different cultural backgrounds, you see usages such as exclamation points! appearing wherever someone wants emphasis! Or power of the idea! Similarly, ideas are sometimes capitalized, so you see “Free and Open Source”. (I also think some people capitalize “Free” because of the ambiguous meanings of that word in English; by capitalizing, they are trying to emphasis the less base, higher-value meaning of the word.)

I’m going to chicken out at this point and ask someone smarter than me. Michael Tiemann, as President of the Open Source Initiative, what should we do? It appears the OSI is consistent in using “open source”, but is that a term we can continue to strongly defend?

Remember what happened when we began to Federally regulate the meaning of organic for food? And it lost value? Organic movement founders began to seek other terms that continued to hold the high-value meaning that organic used to hold. Is the same thing happening to open source?