Year of Open Source

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Sam Muirhead:

"What is the Year of Open Source?

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.

I plan to use myself as a subject in an experiment to canvas the range of open source ideas and products, search out and discuss ways around traditional copyright licensing, and see how the ideas of free software, libre hardware and openness can affect different areas of everyday life. 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."


Sam Muirhead interviewed by

"1) How did you come up with the idea of living open source for one year? Were you already using open source or was it a radical change?

For a long time I had been very interested in the concept of open source, and done plenty of reading up on the subject (Benkler, Lessig, etc). I was mostly interested in open source hardware like the RepRap project, and digital commons projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.

But I had no experience working with these projects myself, and I had never used or developed any open hardware. I had no understanding of programming and little interest in software, but now having switched to free software I’ve had to learn (and enjoyed learning!) a lot more about how computers and software work.

Before starting this project basically the only free software programs I was (knowingly) using were OpenOffice and Firefox. I edited video with Final Cut on a Mac, and had a pirated copy of Adobe Creative Suite. I had never tried out open education, never remixed anything from the public domain, and never published anything under a libre license.

The decision to try a ‘Year of Open Source’ came about in a few different ways – for a long time I had felt that my own choices and actions did not fully reflect my ethics and interests. Also the whole theory of peer production and open source development models is usually: the more people contribute and participate, the better the system becomes. I wasn’t participating, I was only watching from the sidelines.

However, I was apprehensive about getting involved in open source, having no technical background, no knowledge of electrical or mechanical engineering or software development. It can seem somewhat daunting from the outside, and I felt there may be many other people in a similar situation to me. So I thought my lack of experience could make me a nice experimental guinea pig. People could follow my progress and see if, or to what extent, open hardware/design ‘democratises production’ – could a complete newbie also start designing and making things, or would it be too complicated? I thought by focusing more on the concepts and processes of open source and how they are applied in different areas, rather than focusing on linux distributions or copyright licenses, I could reach out to another audience than the usual open source crowd.

2) What was your favourite open project you have documented or discovered along this year? Could you choose one?

Maybe I’ll mention some that I haven’t been able to document yet: Premium is a German/Swiss/Austrian collective which started as a ‘fork’ of Afri-Cola – a group of customers who were disappointed with the new product started producing the old cola recipe, and used this product as a way to start hacking the economy around them. Rather than seeing themselves as a separate entity, exerting price pressure on suppliers and customers around them, Premium see those suppliers and customers as part of their ‘company’ and ensure that everyone gets a fair deal. They are a non-profit organisation and have never taken out a loan – yet their sales and market share have been steadily growing for over a decade. They don’t advertise because it’s annoying. They practice total transparency, publishing every transaction on the website, offering an ‘anti-bulk discount’ and publishing their business model and lessons learned as an ‘operating system’ for anyone to replicate. If you want to run your own company along their model, you can call your product ‘Premium’ too, it’s an open brand.

Open Structures is a grid system and a construction set for which parts and products can be designed to fit together in a modular way. By using a set ratio and developing modular parts, you can rearrange parts and pieces easily – it’s like a LEGO kit for EVERYTHING – if you no longer want your kettle, just dismantle the parts and reassemble them as part of your bicycle, garage door, and coffee plunger.

WikiHouse is also an amazing open source architecture initiative – but Alastair explains it much better than I can.

Two of my most-visited sites: I get the music for my videos from the Free Music Archive (CC-BY or CC-BY-SA tracks) and I also love the Public Domain Review!

3) What was the less „predictable“ area of life you found an open source alternative for?

I was surprised that there was not more of a culture of sharing in clothing and fashion – there’s basically no copyright involved in clothing at all (trademarks are a separate issue) and everybody copies everyone else. But it’s not done with intent. You don’t see Prada selling their clothing with digital files for you to make your own copies, but you can very easily – and legally – copy the design simply by tracing the seams of the garment.

Digital manufacturing has yet to make much of an impact in this field. 3D printing and laser cutting in fashion tends to be more gimmicky than practical, and I wanted to find another way to use digital technology to make it easier for people to make their own clothing. So with the help of a talented tailor called Swantje Wendt, who runs a co-sewing space, I learned about how patterns work, how they are graded between sizes, and I used a parametric design tool called Magic Box to create an adjustable boxer short pattern (another friend helped me out with some algebra here). And at OpenTechSchool I got some help in transferring the template to a more suitable format and language. Then I had a very basic software program, a parametric pattern where you type in your waist measurement, and the pattern adjusts to fit. Then you can print out the pattern and sew away. Or, if you’re like me, you need a helpful, patient person like Swantje to teach you how to sew first.

The idea behind this project was to let computers do the not-very-fun job of calculating how to grade a pattern to your own size, which leaves the human free to do what they do best, to think creatively about their clothing, and the material or techniques they want to use to create or personalise it. Unfortunately I haven’t finished documenting this project so it isn’t published yet, but the boxers themselves are very comfortable indeed.


6) The year is now over. How does it go on now?

Right now, I just have to do paid video jobs for a month or two to get back on my feet financially, I was entirely focused on this project without much income for almost a year – the €5000 crowdfunding support at the start of the year was vital and I’m very grateful for it, the project would have been impossible without it, but it’s not really enough to survive on and pay for materials etc for a whole year, even in Berlin. But I’m also slowly tying up the loose ends of my year – finishing up projects, documenting, and editing together a video which will try to tell the whole story. It won’t be a feature-length epic, more of a highlights reel, with an accompanying written piece. There are a few differences in my life now – I sometimes catch the U-Bahn, and I go see All Rights Reserved films at the movies. But the project is basically continuing in a more relaxed fashion. There was so much more that I wanted to cover over the initial year which I wasn’t able to go into. Developing these little projects takes a very long time, and often depends upon the schedules of friendly helpers and collaborators, and there’s no budget, so the pace is slow.

7) Berlin is for sure one of the cities where open cultures are being supported the most. Which would be other cities or countries also following this trend?

Having just come back from the MakerFaire in Rome I was surprised at the depth and variety of Italian open hardware projects, many of which I had never heard of before. And I think my ignorance is perhaps to do with the tyranny of the English language! In the sites I visit and the media I come across there’s this unfortunate situation where there’s much more emphasis on projects and communities in English-speaking places or projects which document and communicate extensively in English. Luckily through visiting a few conferences and events in different parts of Europe I’ve had the chance to hear from some amazing initiatives in France, Spain, and Finland as well. I know the Netherlands is very big on digital manufacturing and makerspaces, and Barcelona has the Fab City and Smart Citizen projects amongst many others, and there’s support from the civic and Catalonian governments, so they’re on to a good thing. I can keep track of what’s happening in ‘open everything’ in the States pretty well, just from online sources, but I would love to travel to a few more places in Africa and Asia sometime soon – information on what’s happening there is harder to come by. It’s difficult to keep track of this kind of development." (

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