What is the Year of Open Source?

A little bit more about this project and how it works

[UPDATE] Year of Open Source ran from August 1st 2012-August 1st 2013.

Read the end-of-project wrap-up here.

The project kicked off a number of adventures further into this ever-expanding field: these days I spend my time applying the open source approach to video, to the circular economy, and, well, everything else.

What is the Year of Open Source?

Year of Open Source is a year-long investigative process and life experiment, documented in video, writing, and other media. I’m a filmmaker from New Zealand, based in Berlin. Until August 2013, I’m trying to live Open Source for a year – avoiding traditionally copyrighted products, using products released under open licenses, or adapting or developing my own. In every aspect of my life, from the clothes I wear to the film equipment and appliances I use, I will be looking for and switching to open source alternatives, in hardware, software and services.

Confused? Here’s how I explained it to my mum.

The goal is to investigate how free / libre / open source ideas have spread to other areas outside of software – to test out the theory and see how feasible an ‘open source life’ may be. The other core part of the project is to spread the idea of open source, to get people to understand what it is and how it works, and to consider using open source options and methods.

For more details, please read the FAQ.

All the while I will be gaining knowledge and perspective on core concepts and examples of free/libre/open culture and the best methods of communicating these ideas. The lessons and experience of this year will also go into a libre-licensed creative video work which will start production in August 2013. Keep coming back for updates, blog posts and videos throughout the year!

Sam Muirhead


Ways you can help!

This is an independent documentary project in support of free / libre / open culture, with no crew and few resources – I ran an initial crowdfunding campaign in July to get things going, and we were able to raise almost €5000, but if you’ve just heard about the project and would like to help out, the best way is to donate via the links in the sidebar (flattr, paypal and BitCoin- open source money!). There are Open Source Swimsuit Calendars on offer as a thank you as well.  I’ve quit my part-time job to focus on this, but I’m only just scraping by!

If you like the idea of the project and would like to help out, there is all sorts of non-financial help that I need:

If you know of interesting relevant events happening within Europe throughout the duration of the project (until August 2013), please let me know. If you’re interested in collaborating on a project, I’d be keen to hear from you as well.

I don’t have the resources to be able to buy an open source computer or camera, or even to buy the parts and put them together. If anyone can sponsor me with an open source product, or if you know anybody developing an interesting open source hardware project who might need some publicity, I would love to be able to at least borrow a test version to play with and discuss, even if only for a month or two.

For the film at the end of the project I’ll be looking for people to help out with translation, animation, and all aspects of video production.

If you’re based in Berlin, there are plenty of ways you can help. If you:

a) have some experience shooting with Canon DSLRs, or would like to learn

b) have some editing experience or would like to learn, and are keen to join me in getting to grips with open source NLEs

c) are good at organizing and planning, and could help me make a timeline and organise some projects, visits and interviews to help me tackle this huge task (Native speakers of German would also be very helpful).

There are plenty of other ways people might be able to help, just send me an email if you think of something you can offer. The more skilled people who can help in any way, the better this project can be. If someone you know might be able to help me out, tell them to get in touch. I want it to be as far-reaching, entertaining and thought-provoking as possible, and I can only do so with your help. Thank you very much for all the suggestions so far, I’m working on turning this blog into a navigable, functional website, so keep checking back!

Kicking off a year of Open Source Everything!

This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

Sam Muirhead will have to turn his rather non-handy hands to all forms of making and DIY as he attempts to live without proprietary products for a year.

The phrase ‘Open Source’, to many people, means ‘software you don’t have to pay for’ – but really it’s so much more than that. It’s a way of thinking and working focused on transparency and collaborating with others. It’s about sharing ideas, plans, and developments for the benefit of the commons. And it’s definitely not just software.

There are already open source brickmakers, breathalyzers, and underwater robot drones – all with their schematics freely available for use and modification. There are even 3D-printer-printing-3D printers creating a positive feedback loop of innovation and home production.

Within the hacker and maker scene, open source is discussed as a glorious and inevitable global revolution -but outside of this sphere, in schools, offices, malls, farms and film sets, it’s a foreign concept.

I’ve been following open source closely over the last few years, but as a filmmaker, I never felt like I had skills to contribute to the movement’s development.

Even Mac users can be useful to the open source movement.

But then I realized that everyone, whether librarian, beekeeper or mechanic, everyone can use the abilities they have in some way to make the world a little better, to help out a cause or an interest they feel is worthwhile. I felt sure that open source could use a filmmaker.

So I’ve started a somewhat insane plan to spread the word about open source, to get others thinking and talking about these ideas of collaboration, transparency and modification – to show how far open source has come and how far it could go. This will be my Year of Open Source.

For one year I am trying to go as open source as possible, in all aspects of my life – the shoes I wear, the phone I use, even how I get around. I’m not buying any proprietary or traditionally copyrighted products unless all other options are exhausted. I’m looking for and switching to more open, transparent products which are replicable by others, trying to highlight the benefits of treating others as collaborators rather than competitors. I’ll be investigating how the open source philosophy might apply to different areas of life, where it fits well, and where it might not work. Is anybody working on an open source microwave? What would open insurance be like?

Luckily there are plenty of resources and skilled people around to help me...

I’m documenting everything in videos and writing on Shareable and my website; not just my successes but also my ridiculous fumbles and failures as I come to grips with open source. I’m bringing all of these disparate areas of technology, collaboration and DIY together in my journey as an open-source-outsider experiencing a new way of living. And I’m going to be sharing that journey with you, every couple of weeks here on Shareable. I’ll be your crash-test dummy, hurling myself face-first into open source just so you can watch what happens.

I’m in the best possible city to attempt this project – although Berlin’s hardly a slick corporate metropolis. Rent is low, unemployment is high, and beer is cheaper than water. There are fewer people working 40- or 50- hour weeks than other major cities, and this tends to dampen the furious charge of consumerism somewhat. Instead it leaves plenty of time for creativity, and that’s one part of the economy that certainly is booming.

Berlin’s a city that is always changing, growing, fighting, one that can never quite decide what shape it should take. Right now it’s an incredible hotspot of makers, hackers, artists and innovators who are finding their own ways of doing things. They’re sharing their experiences, learning from one another, and building on each others’ creativity. In 2012, Berlin is the hub of a huge open source network, and I’m hoping to catch it on camera before the city morphs into something else entirely.

The only open source thing in this picture is the newly-installed Ubuntu (Linux) operating system

The project officially started on August 1st, and right now I’m making an inventory of everything I own, everything I use, and everything I need, to assess just how much work lies ahead of me – I know it’s a mammoth task, but I don’t know quite how hairy or smelly this mammoth is yet. Looking at my desk right now I’ve can list a camera, microphone, computer, wallet, hard drives, lamp, a couple of books… none of these items are open source. None of them have their schematics available for others to study, copy, or modify. So over the course of the year I’m going to try to find open source alternatives to these – I’ll only buy books which are released under open licenses; I’ll test out an open source video camera; I’ll only buy music which I’m allowed to use in videos or remix.

Some issues are more pressing than others. I’ve only got 12 beers left from before my Year of Open Source started. I’ve got to find an open source beer fast, or start brewing one, and then I’ll share the results with you. This summer’s not getting any cooler.

My last 12 closed-source beers, brewed to a deliciously secretive recipe in the decidely non-transparent Black Forest.

Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.


Here are a few frequently asked questions (or frequently shouted criticisms) that I’ve received.

Feel free to add more questions in the comments!

What is Open Source to you? is it always copyleft?

No, not all open source is copyleft. There  are a number of different licenses and approaches.
The aim for my project is always to achieve the FSF’s definition of ‘the 4 Freedoms‘, and I plan to evaluate ideas, projects and products on their position in the free->open->closed/nonfree spectrum throughout the year, including whether they are true copyleft, or if they are simply permissively licensed, if they are public domain (NOT open source but still acceptable for my project in most situations) or if they are proprietary.

You have proprietary vaccines in your body! You’re not open source!

The aim to live 100% open source is the goal, and it’s a naive and impossible goal. But the project itself is about the attempt. I am interested in the philosophy of open source and free software, and I want to promote it, but I also want to be realistic about it.

I’m going to try to reach that goal, and I will still be trying, even when it makes my life difficult and uncomfortable. I’ll still be trying well past the point any sane person would have given up, gone home and had a warm, proprietary Nespresso.

I realise that there are current limitations, particularly in terms of what open source hardware is available. I’ll be trying to overcome some of these limitations by developing new projects, or outlining the best path towards developing solutions. There are also theoretical limitations – is it even possible to have an open source airline? should we allow modification and redistribution of swine flu?

Whenever I come across hurdles in my path, I’ll be trying various different methods of leaping over them, scurrying under them, or whacking them with a stick. I’ll share my experiences and solutions with the community. Some solutions will require plenty of creativity and lateral thinking. Many will make me look foolish. I am totally ok with this.

What about your Mac?

There has been plenty of discussion on tech sites about how I’m going to deal with the basic problem of my computer hardware. A MacBook Pro is an extremely closed-source machine, packed with patented, proprietary components. And there are no open source equivalents. So I’m going to approach the problem in three different ways:

1) FrankenBook Pro
I’m not going to throw it on a bonfire – I just don’t have the financial resources to go and buy a new computer. Even if I reach my crowdfunding goal, this is still a low-budget, bare-bones production. If you can provide me with a suitable, more open replacement, then sure, I’ll give the Mac to an organisation that needs it (with Linux installed, naturally).
So as well as switching to free software, I’m going to donate its body to science, so to speak – over the year I will try to replace as many of its hardware components as possible with open source components.

2) Simple solutions
I have thought about my computing needs for this project and year, and what I need, at its most basic, is a simple machine for editing videos and connecting to the internet. I want to put together a simple, cheap, and extremely basic computer, that will perform the basic task necessary.
My aim is to work with others – developers, programmers, electronics and hardware experts – to develop a very basic solution to the problem.
Is there a way to hook up a Raspberry Pi with a basic open hardware LCD screen or other monitor and run an extremely simplistic video editing program? even if it is black and white, slow, with seriously crappy resolution, the idea is to provide a test project, something that others can build on to improve.
An inspiration for this kind of project is The Toaster Project – it’s not meant to be a practical solution to the problem but an interesting way to visualize and think about the complexity of the issue.

3) Predicting the future
I intend to conduct interviews with experts on computer hardware and investigate the problems facing development of a suitable open source alternative to a MacBook Pro. What problems remain unsolved? Is there any hope for a better solution in the future?
I’ll present the results of my interviews and research in video and/or writing on the website.

Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Debian have nonfree elements. Firefox has nonfree elements. Does that mean you can’t use them?

Some would say yes. I say no. The intent of my project is to get more people interested and involved in Open Source. Having me bawling my eyes out at how difficult it is to use open source software is not the best way to do this.
Firefox and Ubuntu are good examples of open source software designed with non-technical users in mind, and they are great ways to bring more people into the community. I will not be using only one distro or browser exclusively throughout the year, however. I’ll test-drive plenty, and use different software for different needs.
But what I will do when faced with free software with nonfree elements is be explicit and transparent about the nonfree parts, see if there is any way around them, and raise awareness of the issue so that the developers of the software know it is important and not forgotten.

Why Open Source, not free software? It’s about freedom!

Since starting my campaign I’ve had a few discussions with people about this issue, and at this stage I’m trying to stay relatively neutral with regards to terminology.
The main reason not to use a name referring to ‘free software’ is simply because a huge part of my project, perhaps the majority, is going to be focused on free and open source hardware, which tends to only use the open source moniker. However, I am also using the term ‘libre hardware’. Now I am trying to mostly use ‘free software’ but also ‘free and open source software’ and simply ‘open source’, although that is usually when referring to the general movement rather than software specifically.
The terminology I use will be up for debate early on in the project itself – I want to bring in many opinions to the discussion and work out what I should be saying, or rather how I should be saying it.

So on August 1st you’ll be living totally open source?

From the first of August I will avoid buying any more traditionally copyrighted products, and will start the process of replacing as many of my proprietary possessions as possible.
Obviously I can’t achieve all my aims within the first week. I’ll be tackling issues one-by-one in order to be able to research, get feedback and input, conduct interviews, develop solutions and write up documentation.
The things I use everyday, the clearest solutions and the things I buy regularly will be first.So the first project will be the obvious one – On August 1 I’ll switch to Linux and open source software. Beer has to follow soon after.
This might mean those of you giddy with excitement at the thought of tackling open source refrigeration might have to wait a couple of months while I deal with the issue of an open source cellphone. But of course if my fridge dies in the meantime (which it is constantly threatening to do), then it will cut in to the front of the line, and I’ll have to deal with the issue there and then. This is a one-year process and I hope at the end of the year to be living as open source as humanly possible, while still being connected to the internet, eating food and making videos.

What are you talking about, toilet paper?! Surely toilet paper is public domain!

My mention of toilet paper was a throwaway comment meant to make people understand the extent of the issues I’ll be investigating, and that I won’t just be dealing with high-tech issues. The line has been included in a few headlines, and unfortunately far too much importance has been placed upon this particular point and derailed the conversation on some sites.

For fulfilling my project I see it as ‘public domain good, open source better’ – I will use plenty of products whose production patents have expired (eg toilet paper, or dried spaghetti, or a bicycle). I can use these public domain products, but if I can occasionally make explicitly open source versions which explain how something is made and actively encourage others to make or modify their own, all the better. This will often be done to explain the difference between public domain and open source.

What rules are you setting yourself – what can you still buy?
Basic materials – textiles and food which are not made or grown from patented seed strains or still covered by patents. Basic foodstuffs where the production process is clear and only one ingredient is used, eg orange juice, olive oil, milk. I’m OK with these products, although I may experiment. Wires, circuit boards, basic components for making electronics projects. Wood, nails, glue etc for DIY projects.

Some of the mining and metallurgy involved in the production of these materials is probably proprietary. The trucks that deliver the food are proprietary. There are all sorts of proprietary processes involved in these not-particularly proprietary materials. This project is not just about seeing how much of an effect open source has on the real world but it’s also a way to show how closed-source and proprietary our current products, lifestyles and production systems are.  I’ll be acknowledging, discussing and examining these issues over the year.
General nit-picking is fine, but constructive suggestions are much more helpful – If you know of ways around these issues please tell me.