How to Make Your Project Open Source

Whether you’re interested in making your project open source partway through or at the outset, you’re likely to experience some challenges along the way. Indeed, giving your project away for free can be a bit scary, especially if you have a lot of emotional or financial capital tied up in it. However, there are many rewards to reap from starting an open source project: increased opportunities for collaboration and networking, improved community contributions, higher visibility and search engine traffic, and more. With a few adjustments to your development workflow (and perhaps a bit of help on GitHub), your new open source effort could soon be thriving.

What does “open source” mean?

When a project is open source, that means anybody is free to use, study, modify, and distribute your project for any purpose. These permissions are enforced through an open source license.

Open source is powerful because it lowers the barriers to adoption and collaboration, allowing people to spread and improve projects quickly. Also because it gives users a potential to control their own computing, relative to closed source. For example, a business using open source software has the option to hire someone to make custom improvements to the software, rather than relying exclusively on a closed source vendor’s product decisions.

Free software refers to the same set of projects as open source. Sometimes you’ll also see these terms combined as “free and open source software” (FOSS) or “free, libre, and open source software” (FLOSS). Free and libre refer to freedom, not price.

Why do people open source their work?

One of the most rewarding experiences I get out of using and collaborating on open source comes from the relationships that I build with other developers facing many of the same problems I am.

There are many reasons why a person or organization would want to open source a project. Some examples include:

  • Collaboration: Open source projects can accept changes from anybody in the world. Exercism, for example, is a programming exercise platform with over 350 contributors.
  • Adoption and remixing: Open source projects can be used by anyone for nearly any purpose. People can even use it to build other things. WordPress, for example, started as a fork of an existing project called b2.
  • Transparency: Anyone can inspect an open source project for errors or inconsistencies. Transparency matters to governments like Bulgaria or the United States, regulated industries like banking or healthcare, and security software like Let’s Encrypt.

Open source isn’t just for software, either. You can open source everything from data sets to books. Check out GitHub Explore for ideas on what else you can open source.

Does open source mean “free of charge”?

One of open source’s biggest draws is that it does not cost money. “Free of charge”, however, is a byproduct of open source’s overall value.

Because an open source license requires that anyone can use, modify, and share your project for nearly any purpose, projects themselves tend to be free of charge. If the project cost money to use, anyone could legally make a copy and use the free version instead.

As a result, most open source projects are free, but “free of charge” is not part of the open source definition. There are ways to charge for open source projects indirectly through dual licensing or limited features, while still complying with the official definition of open source.

Should I launch my own open source project?

The short answer is yes, because no matter the outcome, launching your own project is a great way to learn how open source works.

If you’ve never open sourced a project before, you might be nervous about what people will say, or whether anyone will notice at all. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone!

Open source work is like any other creative activity, whether it’s writing or painting. It can feel scary to share your work with the world, but the only way to get better is to practice – even if you don’t have an audience.

If you’re not yet convinced, take a moment to think about what your goals might be.

Setting your goals

Goals can help you figure out what to work on, what to say no to, and where you need help from others. Start by asking yourself, why am I open sourcing this project?

There is no one right answer to this question. You may have multiple goals for a single project, or different projects with different goals.

If your only goal is to show off your work, you may not even want contributions, and even say so in your README. On the other hand, if you do want contributors, you’ll invest time into clear documentation and making newcomers feel welcome.

Determine the goals

Every open source project solves a specific problem. Talk with colleagues, chats, forums, and share your idea. It all helps you on the first steps to understand important things, like which solutions already exist, and to hear criticism. Talk with people who already have open source projects. They can give you very valuable advice, so don’t be afraid to ask and take the initiative.

One important bit of advice which I got at that stage is to pay attention in the first place on the documentation of the project. You can have a very good project, but no one will spend the time to understand how it works.

The most important aspect, without which further steps are impossible, is motivation. The idea of the project should inspire you primarily. Most often people get used to the tools with which they work and fall into a comfort zone, so external opinions may be ambiguous.

Planning

The choice of a certain task manager is a matter of taste. It should have a clear picture of the tasks and stages of your project.

Divide tasks into sub-tasks. Ideally, if one task does not take more than 3–4 hours, it is important to enjoy the implementation of small tasks. This will help to avoid burnout and loss of motivation.

I use pivotal tracker. The main advantage is a free version for open source projects where you can sort tasks by type (feature, bug, chore, release), and group them into releases and determined deadlines.

Documentation

Every open source project should contain these things:

  • README
  • Open Source license
  • Contributing guidelines
  • Changelog

The README file not only explains how to use your project, but also the purpose of your project. If you do not know how to properly write a README file, you can look at other known open source projects or use a template.

The license guarantees that others can use, copy and modify the source code of the project. You need to add this file to each repository with your open source project. MIT and Apache 2.0 GPLv3 are the most popular licenses for open source projects. If you are not sure what to choose, you can use this convenient service.

The CONTRIBUTING file will help other developers contribute to the project. At the first steps of the project, it is not necessary to pay close attention to this file. You can use the already prepared template from another project.

Changelog contains a supported, chronologically-ordered list of significant changes for each version. As with the CONTRIBUTING file, I do not advise paying special attention to this at an early stage.

Conclusion

In conclusion, as a developer, you should know that open source is a good investment in the future. Almost every Cloud or Web services are predominantly built on open source projects. Having seen and looked at the benefits of taking your project Open Source, there is no doubt that it is worth making your project open source.

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