It's a well-established part of canon that humans in the 23rd+ century Star Trek universe work to better themselves and the rest of humanity, and have largely done away with the profit motive. It seems reasonable to conclude that all software development at this time is effectively free and open source, though the exact distribution mechanisms would of course differ greatly from the present day.

However, I'm wondering if this applies as well to military technology used by Starfleet (ie the LCARS computer system employed in the 24th century and beyond). This seems like a minimalist system which changes very little and is vulnerable to hacking/tampering - this smacks of a proprietary non-free model, which clearly is out of place in the ideals of the Federation.

I personally imagine LCARS to be something like a fork of a common kernel/set of components which Starfleet retains control over. It would, after all, be benficial to standardise the fleet on one OS to ease maintenance.

Has this ever been addressed in canon (as a throwaway line in an episode, perhaps?) or in semi-canon like books/graphic novels? Just wondering.

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    Given their attitude towards sharing knowledge and technology, it's a good bet their software licensing approach is a model that is based on what we call free and open-source software. When sharing technology and knowledge is a tactical problem, they usually come up with some flimsy excuse ("The computer is tightly integrated into our ship's systems." [Janeway]).
    – bitmask
    Mar 25, 2013 at 18:49
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    Or they give really old technology. I forget the exact wording, but in The Next Phase (TNG), the Romulans ask for a computer core and Riker suggests giving them one from 50 or so years ago, which they'd already have knowledge of.
    – Xantec
    Mar 25, 2013 at 19:22
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    LCARS (at least as described in the series) is actually highly configurable. For example, Tom Paris's nonstandard navigation panels. It just reuses a lot of the same UI elements, so it looks unchanging at a glance - they use text, instead of icons like we do in reallife.
    – Izkata
    Mar 25, 2013 at 22:51
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    Kirk downloaded it from Github and it seemed to work fine. The project is no longer actively maintained. Mar 27, 2013 at 15:03

2 Answers 2


Honestly, I think the answer here has to be, "No, it's never really been addressed".

What has been addressed, as far back as the 1960s, is that the software that controls a starship is modifiable by trained personnel, although many of our examples constitute hacks rather than what today we might think of as forks and later pull requests :-) I doubt that Starfleet ever accepted Kirk's patch to the Kobayashi Maru scenario in its main repository, for example :-)

The writers of the later series also often seem to conflate what we might think of as writing programs with simply giving the computer more complicated orders. This makes it hard to determine whether there is actual modification of "core" code involved; whether new programs are being created and linked with existing, closed libraries using a known API; or whether a set of already canned (and possibly closed) commands are being tied together in the verbal equivalent of a shell script.

The truth is that few of the writers or creative personnel of Star Trek have ever been computer savvy, let alone savvy to the politics of software licensing. It seems unlikely that any of them have ever actually given it any thought.

EDIT Last night, not long after I posted this, I did think of an example, since you ask about semi-canon sources as well.

In Diane Duane's classic-era novels, she fleshes out the notion that the Enterprise recreation deck (the big one seen in ST:TMP) is not just sort of there, but is actually a department, with a Head of Recreation who takes his job -- helping everyone else play -- very seriously.

In order to keep his life entertaining, he installs a software package on the department's main computer called For Argument's Sake, which bestows a feisty artificial personality (but not, as delivered, quite an artificial sentience) named Moira to the system and helps keep him on his toes. (The Wounded Sky).

Eventually, he finds the program a bit limited, and (here's the relevant bit) asks Spock to enhance it. At no time is it suggested that Spock is hacking, cracking, violating terms of service, or in anyway doing something he should not be doing, except perhaps for the end result, which was not intended, but rather emergent behavior. He extends the program's code and enhances it to the point where it does, in fact, become an artificial sentience -- something which Starfleet is generally nervous about. The implications of this are never explored beyond a general decision on the part of the command staff to keep quiet about it, because they like Moira too much to want her switched off! (Spock's World)

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    +1 for the novel. Which reminds me, did Spock extend or create the chess program used in TOS? That may be another example.
    – Izkata
    Apr 11, 2013 at 22:55
  • As I recall, in "Court Martial", Spock describes himself as having "taught the computer to play chess", leaving ambiguous whether he did so by writing code, or by taking advantage of the computer's native ability to learn. He discovered Ben Finney's tampering because he suddenly could beat the computer, which should not have been possible -- the best he should have been able to obtain was a draw. Apr 11, 2013 at 23:08

Being the codebase for controlling and interacting with starships, its highly unlikely they would use any, or very much, public domain code. Its too much of a security risk. It would be like asking the navy to control their ships using Android OS.

It's not that the codebase is inherently insecure. But it would be like giving your enemies a big head start in figuring out how to crack or bypass your security. Android is fine for my phone, but I don't want it controlling my country's missile submarines.

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    Well, you know what they say about Security through obscurity...
    – Dylan Yaga
    Mar 27, 2013 at 13:04
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    I wouldn't want Android running a nuclear submarine, but I'd prefer them to use it's base--the Linux kernel--over a home grown solution.
    – Phoshi
    Mar 27, 2013 at 19:49
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    The best security tools are FLOSS (SSH, GPG, TrueCrypt, etc.)...
    – Bobby
    Mar 27, 2013 at 20:07
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    Security ONLY through obscurity is a terrible idea, but as an additional defensive layer, you don't loose anything. Security for essential services (power stations, starships) should not be public domain, since with enough eyes all vulnerabilities will be found, especially if the Borg dedicate a couple of billion drones to the task!
    – SteB
    Mar 28, 2013 at 8:43
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    @Bobby the best publicly-available security tools are FLOSS; the NSA has, in the past, been up to a decase ahead of the academic/commercial security sector (they discovered differential cryptoanalysis in the 1970s, while it was only discovered by the academic security researchers in the late 1980s). So it's a reasonable bet that their private, secret security stuff may be better than the FLOSS tools.
    – evilsoup
    Apr 11, 2013 at 18:26

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