Open Source Software Development
If an application you purchased from a proprietary software vendor breaks, you cannot pop open the hood, tinker with the source code, and continue working away. The source code is owned and copyrighted by the manufacturer, and modifying, copying, or reselling it to others is illegal. Open source software offers an alternative to this proprietary arrangement. Open source applications allow users to modify the source code in any way they like. They can add to it, change it, or extend it. They can also copy it, give it away to others, or even sell it. The only proviso is that those to whom it is further distributed have the same freedoms to access the source code, copy, or sell the software. This passing along of the freedoms of use is sometimes referred to as “copyleft” and is highly prized by open source supporters. Perhaps the most famous example of open source software is the Linux operating system, which is licensed under the Free Software Foundations General Public License.
When proprietary software made its first appearance, some parties in the computing community saw it as a threat to the freedom of intellectual collaboration. They believed that software is essentially an intellectual product, and is therefore best served by being treated as an idea: Anyone is welcome join the debate, add an opinion, and bring friends into the conversation. Furthermore, if a person cannot gain access to software, except by purchasing it from a proprietary vendor, then that person is barred from joining the discussion until handing over cash to the owner of the “idea.” In response to the changing landscape of computing in the 1980s, some MIT computer scientists formed the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to promote the open use and sharing of software. The Boston-based group developed the General Public License (GPL), outlining the rules under which users can share, distribute, and collaborate on developing software products. For those who feel “free” might be an erroneous name, the FSF points out it means “free as in free speech, not free as in free beer.”
So what makes this seemingly simple idea so controversial? If anyone can upgrade or improve the product, doesn’t this increase its value to users? Not according to opponents of the open source ethic. Microsoft and other proprietary software producers view open source code as a threat to their businesses. If people can fix and modify the source code on their own, they won’t want to pay the sometimes enormous licensing fees required to use the proprietary products. Nor will they want to purchase upgrades. Even more important, opponents claim, is the danger to intellectual property rights posed by the open source model.
Open source supporters point to the more cost-effective aspects of the model. Even if users initially pay for the software, the freedoms granted under the licensing agreement do not lock them into that choice. They can mix and match software to best suit the needs of their mission. Fans of open source also note that such software tends to be more reliable, causing less downtime, and less time spent by internal IT departments and engineers fixing low-level problems that can cause great disruption. Those opposed to the use of software that allows anyone access to the source code claim that it poses much greater security risks than proprietary packages. If airlines, hospitals, and municipal infrastructures are using it, they leave themselves much more vulnerable to attack than if they use packages where only the maker has access to the source code.
The success of Linux has given great hope to the open source community. It is extremely popular, and is even used, if somewhat sparingly, by government agencies. Versions of Linux are sold by various vendors, including Red Hat Linux, the best known Linux distributor. Such examples serve as confirmation that the open source model is commercially viable. But proprietary producers have been working to block proposals that would require governments to shift to using open source products. For now, patent and copyright laws favor proprietary software. Whether this remains the case will only be known in the future. Microsoft has suggested limiting open source software in various ways, but so far has not proved successful in its quest. For now, the debate continues over whether open source is a benefit for all, or a danger to business and property rights.