How I coined the term 'open source'

Christine Peterson finally publishes her account of that fateful day, 20 years ago.
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In a few days, on February 3, the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the term "open source software" is upon us. As open source software grows in popularity and powers some of the most robust and important innovations of our time, we reflect on its rise to prominence.

I am the originator of the term "open source software" and came up with it while executive director at Foresight Institute. Not a software developer like the rest, I thank Linux programmer Todd Anderson for supporting the term and proposing it to the group.

This is my account of how I came up with it, how it was proposed, and the subsequent reactions. Of course, there are a number of accounts of the coining of the term, for example by Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman, yet this is mine, written on January 2, 2006.

It has never been published, until today.

The introduction of the term "open source software" was a deliberate effort to make this field of endeavor more understandable to newcomers and to business, which was viewed as necessary to its spread to a broader community of users. The problem with the main earlier label, "free software," was not its political connotations, but that—to newcomers—its seeming focus on price is distracting. A term was needed that focuses on the key issue of source code and that does not immediately confuse those new to the concept. The first term that came along at the right time and fulfilled these requirements was rapidly adopted: open source.

This term had long been used in an "intelligence" (i.e., spying) context, but to my knowledge, use of the term with respect to software prior to 1998 has not been confirmed. The account below describes how the term open source software caught on and became the name of both an industry and a movement.

Meetings on computer security

In late 1997, weekly meetings were being held at Foresight Institute to discuss computer security. Foresight is a nonprofit think tank focused on nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and software security is regarded as central to the reliability and security of both. We had identified free software as a promising approach to improving software security and reliability and were looking for ways to promote it. Interest in free software was starting to grow outside the programming community, and it was increasingly clear that an opportunity was coming to change the world. However, just how to do this was unclear, and we were groping for strategies.

At these meetings, we discussed the need for a new term due to the confusion factor. The argument was as follows: those new to the term "free software" assume it is referring to the price. Oldtimers must then launch into an explanation, usually given as follows: "We mean free as in freedom, not free as in beer." At this point, a discussion on software has turned into one about the price of an alcoholic beverage. The problem was not that explaining the meaning is impossible—the problem was that the name for an important idea should not be so confusing to newcomers. A clearer term was needed. No political issues were raised regarding the free software term; the issue was its lack of clarity to those new to the concept.

Releasing Netscape

On February 2, 1998, Eric Raymond arrived on a visit to work with Netscape on the plan to release the browser code under a free-software-style license. We held a meeting that night at Foresight's office in Los Altos to strategize and refine our message. In addition to Eric and me, active participants included Brian Behlendorf, Michael Tiemann, Todd Anderson, Mark S. Miller, and Ka-Ping Yee. But at that meeting, the field was still described as free software or, by Brian, "source code available" software.

While in town, Eric used Foresight as a base of operations. At one point during his visit, he was called to the phone to talk with a couple of Netscape legal and/or marketing staff. When he was finished, I asked to be put on the phone with them—one man and one woman, perhaps Mitchell Baker—so I could bring up the need for a new term. They agreed in principle immediately, but no specific term was agreed upon.

Between meetings that week, I was still focused on the need for a better name and came up with the term "open source software." While not ideal, it struck me as good enough. I ran it by at least four others: Eric Drexler, Mark Miller, and Todd Anderson liked it, while a friend in marketing and public relations felt the term "open" had been overused and abused and believed we could do better. He was right in theory; however, I didn't have a better idea, so I thought I would try to go ahead and introduce it. In hindsight, I should have simply proposed it to Eric Raymond, but I didn't know him well at the time, so I took an indirect strategy instead.

Todd had agreed strongly about the need for a new term and offered to assist in getting the term introduced. This was helpful because, as a non-programmer, my influence within the free software community was weak. My work in nanotechnology education at Foresight was a plus, but not enough for me to be taken very seriously on free software questions. As a Linux programmer, Todd would be listened to more closely.

The key meeting

Later that week, on February 5, 1998, a group was assembled at VA Research to brainstorm on strategy. Attending—in addition to Eric Raymond, Todd, and me—were Larry Augustin, Sam Ockman, and attending by phone, Jon "maddog" Hall.

The primary topic was promotion strategy, especially which companies to approach. I said little, but was looking for an opportunity to introduce the proposed term. I felt that it wouldn't work for me to just blurt out, "All you technical people should start using my new term." Most of those attending didn't know me, and for all I knew, they might not even agree that a new term was greatly needed, or even somewhat desirable.

Fortunately, Todd was on the ball. Instead of making an assertion that the community should use this specific new term, he did something less directive—a smart thing to do with this community of strong-willed individuals. He simply used the term in a sentence on another topic—just dropped it into the conversation to see what happened. I went on alert, hoping for a response, but there was none at first. The discussion continued on the original topic. It seemed only he and I had noticed the usage.

Not so—memetic evolution was in action. A few minutes later, one of the others used the term, evidently without noticing, still discussing a topic other than terminology. Todd and I looked at each other out of the corners of our eyes to check: yes, we had both noticed what happened. I was excited—it might work! But I kept quiet: I still had low status in this group. Probably some were wondering why Eric had invited me at all.

Toward the end of the meeting, the question of terminology was brought up explicitly, probably by Todd or Eric. Maddog mentioned "freely distributable" as an earlier term, and "cooperatively developed" as a newer term. Eric listed "free software," "open source," and "sourceware" as the main options. Todd advocated the "open source" model, and Eric endorsed this. I didn't say much, letting Todd and Eric pull the (loose, informal) consensus together around the open source name. It was clear that to most of those at the meeting, the name change was not the most important thing discussed there; a relatively minor issue. Only about 10% of my notes from this meeting are on the terminology question.

But I was elated. These were some key leaders in the community, and they liked the new name, or at least didn't object. This was a very good sign. There was probably not much more I could do to help; Eric Raymond was far better positioned to spread the new meme, and he did. Bruce Perens signed on to the effort immediately, helping set up and playing a key role in spreading the new term.

For the name to succeed, it was necessary, or at least highly desirable, that Tim O'Reilly agree and actively use it in his many projects on behalf of the community. Also helpful would be use of the term in the upcoming official release of the Netscape Navigator code. By late February, both O'Reilly & Associates and Netscape had started to use the term.

Getting the name out

After this, there was a period during which the term was promoted by Eric Raymond to the media, by Tim O'Reilly to business, and by both to the programming community. It seemed to spread very quickly.

On April 7, 1998, Tim O'Reilly held a meeting of key leaders in the field. Announced in advance as the first "Freeware Summit," by April 14 it was referred to as the first "Open Source Summit."

These months were extremely exciting for open source. Every week, it seemed, a new company announced plans to participate. Reading Slashdot became a necessity, even for those like me who were only peripherally involved. I strongly believe that the new term was helpful in enabling this rapid spread into business, which then enabled wider use by the public.

A quick Google search indicates that "open source" appears more often than "free software," but there still is substantial use of the free software term, which remains useful and should be included when communicating with audiences who prefer it.

A happy twinge

When an early account of the terminology change written by Eric Raymond was posted on the Open Source Initiative website, I was listed as being at the VA brainstorming meeting, but not as the originator of the term. This was my own fault; I had neglected to tell Eric the details. My impulse was to let it pass and stay in the background, but Todd felt otherwise. He suggested to me that one day I would be glad to be known as the person who coined the name "open source software." He explained the situation to Eric, who promptly updated his site.

Coming up with a phrase is a small contribution, but I admit to being grateful to those who remember to credit me with it. Every time I hear it, which is very often now, it gives me a little happy twinge.

The big credit for persuading the community goes to Eric Raymond and Tim O'Reilly, who made it happen. Thanks to them for crediting me, and to Todd Anderson for his role throughout. The above is not a complete account of open source history; apologies to the many key players whose names do not appear. Those seeking a more complete account should refer to the links in this article and elsewhere on the net.

photo of Christine Peterson
Christine Peterson writes, lectures, and briefs the media on coming powerful technologies, especially nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and longevity. She is Cofounder and Past President of Foresight Institute, the leading nanotech public interest group.


This is a great article, thanks for sharing!

For years, I assumed Eric coined "open source," but it was about a year ago when I was teaching a class on the usability of open source software that I happened upon an article that credited you in that meeting for "open source."

I think so many people (myself included) assumed Eric came up with "open source" because he wrote so much about "open source" in those early days. It's great to get this additional backstory. Wonderful read. Thanks!

I apologize if I mischaracterize the views of Richard Stallman on this point, and I accept that you see that the term Free Software is as still useful in some circumstances, I think Richard would see the success of Open Source as a failure in that it distracts from the larger political message of freedom. Being able to see the source is only part of the message. The term free is indeed problematic because it has so many different connotations to so many people. I regret that open as an alternative term also fails because it loses the libre connotation as it concentrates on only one of the freedoms: to see the source. Libre might have been a better choice but I suspect that the full ramifications of "freedom" as Richard would view it is still unacceptable to many people in the industry. I regret that state of affairs.

Freedom software. As in freedom fries

In reply to by Ralph Little (not verified)

The entire point and a reason for success of the open source name was that there was not a larger political message to weigh it down.

Free and Libre both carry political connotations - something many projects choose to avoid.
The GPL is not the only game in town. Never regret that.

Someone who's Free Software Foundation T-shirt was scoffed at and dismissed by many in the early 1990s for exactly the reasons Christine describes.

In reply to by Ralph Little (not verified)

"Libre might have been a better choice but I suspect that the full ramifications of "freedom" as Richard would view it is still unacceptable to many people in the industry. I regret that state of affairs."

I don't. If anything I recently find myself left-of-Stallman on the copyleft-copyright spectrum. I've taken to using the term "nonproprietary" and even "noncommercial" and "antiproprietary" to describe my own software-related activities, and even more so to describe activities I wish more people were involved in.

"Free as in beer," while a distraction from the more important "free as in speech" is not necessarily irrelevant. The fact that much of free software is also "free as in beer" may be the single greatest contributor to open source adoption. I think of myself as a volunteer. Voluntary, like free, has two connotations, one political ("voluntary means you're not required to") and one economic ("voluntary means you don't get paid"). Both of these (as well as both senses of "free" as in software) are prerequisites for the sense of nonproprietary technology that I seek to promote. If programmers must be paid, then at some point, software (including open source software) must be monetized, and I've largely come to the conclusion that there's no such thing as a non-cynical monetization model. At best you end up in a world in which all the open source software titles are "community editions" of decidedly proprietary and decidedly closed-source titles.

The reason I may have rolled my eyes a few times around the turn of the century hearing "open source" in IBM commercials (while watching golf, of course) is that there must be something wrong with the open source concept if it's that corporate-friendly. The concept of source code is not software-specific, and I'm actually delighted that it comes from a non-programmer. Use of the term "open source" (if we're doing it right) forces us to consider not just source code, but source documents in a more general sense. For hardware that may mean blueprints. For products and services in general it should (in my opinion) mean supply chain data being nonproprietary, business models (and even strategies) that don't rest on trade secrets, and so much more. As delighted as I am to learn that open source software was coined by a programmer, I'm even more delighted to learn that "open sources" is an expression from the intelligence community. It reminds me of my undergraduate years in the halcyon eighties, when often the more activist members of the faculty would petition the administration for guarantees of their right to conduct "nonclassified and nonproprietary" research. I always looked forward to signing those petitions. Nothing made me more proud than seeing the name of a math professor whose class I had taken on one list of professors making such demands. Not surprisingly, the movement was most popular with the arts and humanities crowd. It was heartening to see someone from what today is called "STEM" going to bat for the cause.

Another big inspiration for my particular brand of open source philosophy was the late Ursula LeGuin. The character Shevek in The Dispossessed (published way back in 1974) is my open-source hero, for reasons I won't get into because those who approve of courtesy to living readers don't post spoilers. In fact, that's the only legitimate use of secrecy that I can think of. XD

In reply to by Ralph Little (not verified)

Free Software > Open Source

I am so glad to read this account, Christine, even though I knew you came up with "open source." And I was amazed to see "memetic action," when the participants at the Open Source Summit debated the term for about 8 minutes and then said, "Yes, let's go with it." So, in a moment I'll never forget, I went down to the hotel desk, and asked them to change the "Free Software Summit" sign to "Open Source Summit" before our end-of-day press conference. And we were off...

It's a great name! I think the benefits of having a great name have been massive. I don't think we'd be in nearly such a good place today as we are without it.

I've never heard the story of where it came from before. Thanks for coming up with it.

Good read indeed. Thank you for coining this powerful term.
We had the pleasure to listen to Jon “Maddog” Hall promoting Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in Sudan during TEDxKhartoum 2013.

Chris's account matches my recollections in every respect and reminds me of some details I had forgotten. I fully endorse it.

I can add that it was indeed I who explicitly brought up terminology as an issue. I had a clearer initial sense than others there (though they did catch up with me later) that we were in effect planning a marketing and branding campaign. That sense was driving my thinking, and continued to do so for months afterwards. But it was something I didn't talk about much because I knew "marketing" was a bad word to these died-in-the-wool geeks, something they'd need to get used to thinking about gradually. I'd had to struggle with the concept myself before making peace with it.

The only other important thing this account leaves out is something Chris didn't know because she couldn't read my mind. The truth is that I spotted "open source" as the winner we were looking for almost immediately, the first or maybe second time it came up, well before I started advocating for it later in the discussion.

You see, I too was feeling like it was important not to step on the discussion, better to allow a consensus to develop without me forcing it. But I spotted the useful connection to "open source" as used in intelligence work immediately and was more excited than I let on. It seemed perfect for our propaganda needs - ideologically neutral, easily parsed, just enough connection to a respectable and established term of art. I was very impressed with Chris for inventing it.

I actually felt a considerable sense of relief when the other participants gravitated to the term. I would have fought for it over the alternatives on offer, but didn't have to. Bright crowd at that meeting; I was ahead of the curve only because I had put concentrated thought into the problems before I walked in. We all figured out what needed to be done, and we did it.

Ever since I was first reminded that "open source" was Chris's coinage I've been careful to credit it to her. She deserves her happy twinge. Maybe I would have come up with the same term or something as good myself, maybe not - it's good that we didn't have to roll those dice.

Umm, wait. What about Caldera, Inc?

“Caldera Announces Open Source Code Model for DOS.”

That’s from 1996. Christine may have come up with the term independently, but she wasn’t the first.

The Caldera term is different: open source code for commercially-licensed software. I don’t think the story claims the words “open” and “source” haven’t been combined before, just that it was the right term at the right time for the concept we all now know and love.

In reply to by Nathanael (not verified)

“The Caldera term is different: open source code for commercially-licensed software.”

But Christine’s claim is more general. From the article above:

“to my knowledge, use of the term with respect to software prior to 1998 has not been confirmed.”

Not with respect to any particular licensing model, but simply “with respect to software”.

I don’t doubt Christine’s recollection of events, or that she genuinely was unaware of Caldera’s use of the term. Nevertheless, the Caldera announcement *is* a confirmed case of prior use “with respect to software”.

In reply to by Bill Wilder (not verified)

Really have been intreged and motivated by the learning experience. Over the years i have grown to want to go back to school for technology. computer science and web design. In collaboration with T_rae and our Aims higher i hope we will do great things with open source and be benificial to many. thanks for the life lessons and source for which foundations are built.

Did anyone notice or object that "open source" sounds like "open sores"? Personally, I think that helped by bringing a vague familiarity.

Elaboration from Christine on that between-meeting brainstorming would be historically interesting. Did she have other contending phrases she ruled out? or almost went with?

When I first came to Red Hat, the office lobby quoted Victor Hugo in big bold letters: "Invading armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." Inside the work areas were many quotes from Gandhi, including "Be the change in the world you want to see." To me, Open Source was the idea whose time had come, while Free Software was the movement that encouraged individuals to be the change in the world they wanted to see.

In the documentary "Revolution OS", I noted the irony that the idea of a community free to innovate and commercialize their collective efforts "sounded too much like Communism" to a Russian visitor. I left it to the audience to think for themselves about the irony that such freedom sounded equally repulsive to American capitalists. But there is a third irony to the story: there is no single truth as to whether Open Source or Free Software is the "right" answer. Rather, it is the power of the two operating in concert that has transformed both the moment and the movement to become the defining technology for the 21st century. Open Source opened commercial doors that were barricaded against free software. Free software has inspired individuals to create new projects unimaginable to conventional commercial interests. Together they make a virtuous cycle whose benefits we can see (and bank on) every single day. In that spirit, we should celebrate the diversity of ideas and approaches that brings us together to progress in truly substantial ways.

I think Nathanael is right. Caldera is the true "coiner" of the term open source in 1996. They used the term to advertise their intention to distribute software source code for free (no license fees). That's what open source means today, right? I'm sorry Christine, you scooped. Maybe you read the press release and the term stuck in your mind. It happens.

"Caldera plans to openly distribute the source code for all of the DOS technologies it acquired from Novell., Inc. on July 23, including CP/M., DR DOS., PalmDOS., Multi-User DOS."

I found this blog which disputes the claim that Peterson coined the term:

I find the evidence in this blog to be fairly convincing.

I think that this evidence needs to be answered if Peterson is to persist in her claim to have coined the term.

I recommend others take a look and judge for themselves whether an answer is needed.

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