1.2. Free Software and Open Source

Under the movements of Free Software and Open Source [OSIc] [OSIb] (also known as open code or open software), we find various different forms of software that share many common ideas.

Important

A software product that is considered to be open source implies as its main idea that it is possible to access its source code, and to modify it and redistribute it as deemed appropriate subject to a specific open source license that defines the legal context.

As opposed to a proprietary type code, whereby the manufacturer (software company) will lock the code, hiding it and restricting the rights to it to itself, without allowing the possibility of any modification or change that has not been made previously by the manufacturer, open source offers:

a) access to the source code, whether to study it (ideal for education purposes) or to modify it, to correct errors, to adapt it or to add more features;

b) software that is free of charge: normally, the software, whether in binary form or source code form, can be obtained free of charge or for a modest sum to cover packaging and distribution costs and added value;

c) standards that prevent monopolies of proprietary software, avoiding dependency on a single choice of software manufacturer; this is more important for a large organisation, whether a company or a state, which cannot (or should not) put itself in the hands of a single specific solution and depend exclusively upon it;

d) a model of progress that is not based on hiding information but on sharing knowledge (like the scientific community) so as to progress more rapidly, and with better quality since decisions are based on the community's consensus and not on the whims of the companies that develop proprietary software.

Creating programs and distributing them together with the source code is nothing new. Since the beginnings of IT and the Internet, things had been done this way. However, the concept of open source itself, its definition and the drafting of the conditions it has to meet date back to the middle of 1997.

Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens promoted the idea. Raymond [Ray98] was the author of an essay called The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which discusses software development techniques used by the Linux community, headed by Linus Torvalds, and the GNU community of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), headed by Richard Stallman. Bruce Perens was the leader of the Debian project, which was working on creating a GNU/Linux distribution that integrated exclusively free software.

Example 1-1. Note

See The Catedral and the Bazaar text at:

http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/

Example 1-2. Note

Two of the most important communities are the FSF, with its GNU software project, and the Open Source community, with Linux as its major project. GNU/Linux is the outcome of their combined work.

An important distinction between these communities lies in the definitions of open source and free software. [Deba] [PS02]

The Free Software Foundation [FSF] is a non-profit corporation founded by Richard Stallman, who believes that we should guarantee that programs are within everyone's reach free of charge, freely accessible and for use as each individual sees fit. The term free caused some reticence among companies. In English, the word can mean "without cost or payment" or "not under the control or in the power of another". The FSF sought both, but it was difficult to sell these two ideas to businesses; the main question was: "How can we make money with this?" The answer came from the Linux community (headed by Linus Torvalds), when they managed to obtain something that the GNU and FSF community had not yet achieved: a free operating system with an available source code. It was at that moment that the community decided to unite the various activities within the free software movement under a new name: open source software.

Open Source was registered as a certification brand, to which software products complying with its specifications could adhere. This did not please everybody and there tends to be a certain divide or controversy over the two groups of Open Source and FSF (with GNU), although really they have more things in common than not.

To some extent, for the exponents of free software (such as the FSF), open source is a false step, because it means selling out its ideals to the market, leaving the door open for software that was free to become proprietary. Those who back open source see it as an opportunity to promote software that would otherwise only be used by a minority, whereas through its worldwide diffusion and sharing, including with companies wishing to participate in open source, we find sufficient strength to challenge proprietary software.

Important

However, the idea pursued by both movements is to increase the use of free software, thus offering an alternative to the sole solutions that large companies wish to impose. The differences are more than practical.

Having established the basic ideas of the open source community, we reached the point where we needed to clarify the criteria a software product should meet in order to qualify as open source. We had to base it on the definition of open source [OSIb] that was originally written by Bruce Perens in June 1997 in response to comments by developers of the Debian Linux distribution, which was subsequently re-edited (with minor changes) by the Open Source Initiative organisation (OSI). This body is responsible for controlling the open source definition and licenses.

Example 1-3. Note

See the original definition of Open Source at:

http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php

In re-edition at:

http://www.opensource.org

Example 1-4. Note

Open source is regulated by a public definition used as the basis for drafting its software licenses.

A small summary (interpretation) of the definition: Open source software [OSIb], or software with an open source code, must fulfil the following requirements:

1) The software may be copied, given away or sold to third parties, without requiring any payment for it.

2) The program must include source code and must allow distribution in source code as well as in compiled form. Or, in all events, there must be a well-publicised means of obtaining the source code (such as downloading via the Internet, for example). Deliberately obfuscated or intermediary forms of source code are not allowed. The license must guarantee that changes can be made.

3) The software license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software. It allows the original code to be re-used.

4) The integrity of the author's source code may be required, in other words, modifications may be presented in the form of patches to the original code, or may be required to carry a different name or version number from the original. This protects which modifications can be attributed to the author. This point depends on what the software license says.

5) The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons. Access to the software must not be restricted. In some cases there may be legal restrictions, as in the case of the United States for technology exports to third countries. If there are restrictions of this type, they must be mentioned.

6) No discrimination against fields of endeavour. The software can be used in any field of endeavour, even if it was not designed for that field. Commercial use is allowed; nobody can stop the software from being used for commercial purposes.

7) The license applies to everyone who receives the program.

8) If the software forms part of a larger product, it must keep the same license. This makes sure that parts are not separated in order to form proprietary software (in an uncontrolled manner). In the case of proprietary software, it must inform that it contains parts (stating which parts) of open source software.

9) The license must not restrict any incorporated or jointly distributed software, in other words, its incorporation should not act as a barrier for another jointly distributed software product. This is a controversial issue since it appears to contradict the preceding point, basically it says that anyone can take open source software and add it to their own software without this affecting its license conditions (for example proprietary), although, according to the preceding point, it would have to inform that there are parts of open source.

10) The license must be technology neutral, i.e. not restricted to certain devices or operating systems. It is not allowed to mention exclusive distribution means or to exclude possibilities. For example, under the open source licence, it is not possible to restrict the distribution to CD, FTP or web form.

Important

This definition of open source is not a software license in itself, but rather a specification of the requirements that an open source software license must fulfil.

In order to be considered an open source program, the program's license must comply with the above specifications. The OSI is responsible for checking that licences meet the specifications. On the Open Source Licenses web page you can find the list of licenses [OSIa], of which one of the most famous and extensively used is the GPL (GNU Public License).

Example 1-5. Note

Open Source Licences:

http://www.opensource.org/licenses/index.html

Under the GPL, the software may be copied and modified, but modifications must be made public under the same license, and it prevents the code becoming mixed with proprietary code so as to avoid proprietary code taking over parts of open source. There is the LGPL license, which is practically identical except that software with this license can be integrated into proprietary software. A classic example is the Linux C library (with LGPL license); if it were GPL, only free software could be developed, with the LGPL it can be used for developing proprietary software.

Many free software projects, or with part open source and part proprietary code, have their own license: Apache (based on BSD), Mozilla (MPL and NPL of Netscape) etc. Basically, when it comes to identifying the software as open source we can make our own license that complies with the above definition (of open source) or we can choose to license it under an already established license, or in the case of GPL, we are obliged for our license also to be GPL.

Having studied the concepts of open source and its licenses, we need to look at to what extent it is profitable for a company to work on or produce open source. If it were not attractive for companies, we would lose both a potential client and one of the leading software producers at the same time.

Open source is also attractive for companies, with a business model that emphasises a product's added value.

Open source offers various attractive benefits where companies are concerned:

a) For software developer companies, it poses a problem: how to make money without selling a product. A lot of money is spent on developing a program and then profit has to be made on top. Well, there is no simple answer, it is not possible with any type of software, the return lies in the type of software that can generate profit beyond the mere sale. Normally, a study will be made as to whether the application will become profitable if developed as open source (most will), based on the premises that we will have a reduced development cost (the community will help us), a reduced cost of maintenance or bug correction (the community can help with this quite quickly) and taking into account the number of users that the open source will provide, as well as the needs that they will have for our support or documentation services. If the balance is positive, then it will be viable to do without revenue from sales.

b) Increasing the number of users.

c) Obtaining greater development flexibility, the more people who intervene, the more people will be able to detect errors.

d) Revenue will mostly come from support, user training and maintenance.

e) Companies that use software need to take many parameters into consideration before choosing a software for managing tasks, such as performance, reliability, security, scalability and financial cost. And although it would seem that open source is already an evident choice on the cost basis, we must say that there is open source software capable of competing with (or even surpassing) proprietary software on any other parameter. Also, we need to take care with choosing the options or proprietary systems of a single manufacturer; we cannot rely solely on them (we may recall cases such as Sony's beta format video versus VHS, or the MicroChannel architecture of IBM for PCs). We need to avoid using monopolies with their associated risks: lack of price competition, expensive services, expensive maintenance, little (or no) choice of options etc.

f) For private users it offers a large variety of software adapted for common uses, since a lot of the software has been conceived and implemented by people who wanted to do the same tasks but could not find the right software. Usually, in the case of a domestic user, a very important parameter is the software cost, but the paradox is that precisely domestic users are more prone to using proprietary software. Normally, domestic users will use illegal copies of software products; recent statistics show levels of 60-70% of illegal domestic copies. Users feel that merely by owning a home PC they are entitled to using the software in some countries for it. In these cases, we are dealing with illegal situations, which although they may not have been prosecuted, may be one day, or are attempted to be controlled through license systems (or product activations). Also, this has an indirect negative effects on free software, because if users are extensively using proprietary software, it forces everyone who wants to communicate them, whether banks, companies or public administrations, to use the same proprietary software too, and they do have to pay the product licenses. One of the most important battles for free software is to capture domestic users.

Example 1-6. Note

Illegal domestic copies are also sometimes known as pirated copies.

g) Finally, states, as a particular case, can obtain important benefits from open source software, since it offers them quality software at ridiculous prices compared to the enormous cost of licenses for proprietary software. Moreover, open source software can easily integrate cultural aspects (of each country) such as language, for example. This last case is fairly problematic, since manufacturers of proprietary software refuse to adapt their applications in some regions – small states with their own language – or ask to be paid for doing so.