How To Credit Open Source Code

Open source software is a great development model for many reasons. Some of the benefits include: you get free, high quality software; new opportunities to network and learn from the open source community; and the ability to customize and extend applications to fit your specific needs.

There are a few situations Open Source Code may be used without explicit attribution in a publication. Sourced Code: Licensed code automatically falls into this category. The license associated with the code is an acknowledgment of where you obtained the code and allows use without modification or attribution. Code Not Sourced: Licensed code in which you have added your own modifications to will always be subject to that license and your own application licensing terms. Unsourced Code: When you haven’t found or used any licensed source for your application, it is still expected that if applicable, you give credit for open source code used in your application as though it were licensed. If possible, we’d like to know how the open source was used in your application.

Glad you asked! When you make a creative work (such as writing, graphics, or code), that work is under exclusive copyright by default. That is, the law assumes that as the author of your work, you have a say in what others can do with it.

In general, that means nobody else can use, copy, distribute, or modify your work without being at risk of take-downs, shake-downs, or litigation.

Open source is an unusual circumstance, however, because the author expects that others will use, modify, and share the work. But because the legal default is still exclusive copyright, you need a license that explicitly states these permissions.

If you don’t apply an open source license, everybody who contributes to your project also becomes an exclusive copyright holder of their work. That means nobody can use, copy, distribute, or modify their contributions – and that “nobody” includes you.

Finally, your project may have dependencies with license requirements that you weren’t aware of. Your project’s community, or your employer’s policies, may also require your project to use specific open source licenses. We’ll cover these situations below.

Understanding how a project works

Not all open source projects operate in the same way. Some allow contributions from anyone. Some require you to work your way up to get contribution privileges. Some have multiple people involved in managing a project. Others have a single person in charge, a so-called benevolent dictator for life. 

Contribution guidelines help you understand how to approach your participation in a project. It will explain how to reach out about a contribution, provide templates for communicating bugs and suggesting features, list work that is needed by maintainers, project goals, etc. An amazing example is the Angular contribution guide which lists all kinds of useful information for new contributors like their commit message guidelines, coding rules, submission guidelines, etc. in great detail. 

In addition to contribution guidelines, some projects will have a code of conduct. It usually outlines community rules and behavior expectations. It’s meant to help you know how to be a amiable and professional contributor and community member. Angular, for instance, has an awesome code of conduct that lists what they consider unprofessional conduct, their responsibilities to the community, and how to get in contact in case someone violates it.   

Big projects may have governance policy and team documents that outline specific roles in the community, teams, sub-committees, contribution workflows, how discussions are conducted, and who gets to commit. These kinds of documents are essential to understanding how the community operates. The about page on angular.io, for example, lists who all the core team members are, their roles, and other contributors. On Github, they also have a docs folder containing policies regarding contribution.  

Even after you’ve gone through the documentation, you may still need to ask questions to active members of the community. Despite doing your research, you may still be stumped on a particular aspect of the project. To interact with other contributors, join community communication tools like Slack, IRC etc., sign up for newsletters, and subscribe to their mailing list. Angular uses Gitter as its community communication tool and directs contributors with questions/problems to Stack Overflow, where they can get help using the angular tag. Connect with community members and develop relationships with them as it will expose you to facets of the project that you may be unaware of. 

Having a good grasp of the technical aspects of the project and how it’s organized is essential to making contributions that meet the project’s standards. To understand technical parts of the project, consult the project README, wikis, tutorials, and documentation. Angular, for example, has docs explaining their Github process, building and testing, their coding standards, debugging, PR reviews, etc. Going a step further, look at past feature integrations and bug fixes in merged pull requests which are full of discussions by other contributors and can be a rich source of context. As the project evolves, pay attention to it, frequently follow issues, features, discussions, pull requests, and bug fixes to continually learn how it works. For instance, a contributor can follow this example of an Angular feature request discussion about a form API to better understand how Angular forms work, bundle size management, etc.

An open source project is sort of like a project at any company you might work at; there will be a house coding style, team culture, and workflows for getting things done. The difference is that open source projects can and will have a much different group of people working on them.

Get to know GitHub

GitHub is the most popular platform for open source collaboration, so you’ll probably use it when exploring the world of OSS. First, you need to create a GitHub account and read the guide that helps you get started. On GitHub, you can contribute to projects by submitting issues and contributing code. Submitting issues means sending messages about errors in applications and suggesting ways to fix them. Contributing code involves sending pull requests with your corrections and improvements.

Are public GitHub projects open source?

When you create a new project on GitHub, you have the option to make the repository private or public.

Create repository

Making your GitHub project public is not the same as licensing your project. Public projects are covered by GitHub’s Terms of Service, which allows others to view and fork your project, but your work otherwise comes with no permissions.

If you want others to use, distribute, modify, or contribute back to your project, you need to include an open source license. For example, someone cannot legally use any part of your GitHub project in their code, even if it’s public, unless you explicitly give them the right to do so.

Finding projects to work on

One way to find projects to work on is to look to open source software you use often and like. Is there a tool, package, framework, or a language that you work with regularly and enjoy using? Find out whether it’s an open source project by checking its license and if it accepts contributions and is active. Working on things you already use gives you an edge when contributing because you’re already pretty familiar with how it works and have experience using it. As a bonus, you can address problems that have been bothering you or suggest features that you want in the software. If you are going to contribute code to the project, be sure you can work in the language it’s written in. 

If the above approach may not work for you, try using the Github explore page to find projects that are accepting contributions or actively want help. Github suggests projects you may like based on people and repositories you follow, star, and watch. Another way to find projects is to use Github’s search tool by entering beginner-friendly contribution tags like good-first-issuegood-first-bugbeginner-friendlyeasylow-hanging-fruitfirst-timers-only, etc. Filter search results to return issues in open states and in the languages you’d like to work in. There are tons of other tools, platforms, and programs where you could find open source projects that I’ll list at the end of this article to help you with your search. 

To have a positive contribution experience, try to avoid communities that are hostile to beginners and generally problematic. If for example, when trying to ask legitimate questions after you’ve done your research, you receive dismissive and combative comments or insults, it’s best to stay away. Another sign to be watchful for is a pattern of unprofessional behavior within a community. Some open source software projects have been infamous for this sort of thing. So do your research before contributing.

Get to know GitHub

GitHub is the most popular platform for open source collaboration, so you’ll probably use it when exploring the world of OSS. First, you need to create a GitHub account and read the guide that helps you get started. On GitHub, you can contribute to projects by submitting issues and contributing code. Submitting issues means sending messages about errors in applications and suggesting ways to fix them. Contributing code involves sending pull requests with your corrections and improvements.

Learn the basics

When working with GitHub, you should know how to use Git – one of the most popular version control tools (also known as revision control tools). Because developers constantly make changes to their code, they need a system that can manage those changes in a central repository. In this way, everyone involved in the development process can download a given piece of software, make changes, and submit updates.

Conclusion

People often use code from other libraries, packages and frameworks in their work projects. And when this happens, the people deserve to know where the code came from and who did it. This is an incomplete list but while it may not be complete it is still a great resource for developers looking to credit those who have gone before them.

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