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Free and open source software

What is free software?

The “free” in “free software” refers primarily to freedom, and not to price (free as in free speech, not as in free beer). It is also normally the case that you can download and install these programs without having to pay.

You may also hear the terms “open source ” or “FOSS” — these all mean more or less the same, although the different terms reflect some ideological differences.

According to the Free Software Foundation’s What is Free Software, these freedoms are:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Free software shouldn’t be confused with software that is simply free of charge (“freeware”) but which you are not allowed to use freely in these ways.

The term “open source” refers to the fact that the human-readable version of the program code (the “source code”) is available to anyone who wants to read it. The second and fourth freedoms depend on this source code being available. (Of course, reading and altering this code is a specialised task, but you at least have the option of hiring a programmer to do it for you!)

How does free software get developed?

How is free software funded? The projects don’t earn money directly from licensing fees, but there are a variety of ways in which development works:

  • Some projects are the work of volunteers — a group of enthusiasts collaborate on a project they want to happen.
  • Others are entirely supported by commercial profit-making companies: OpenOffice (backed by Sun) and Ubuntu (backed by Canonical) would be examples. These companies aim to make money, not by selling the software itself, but by providing related support services.
  • Some projects are backed by commercial companies, universities, and nonprofit groups who want a particular piece of software for their own use. This software is then made available to the wider community for anyone else who needs it to use as well.

Most open source projects are very open to contributions from users of the software. If you find a bug in the program you are usually encouraged to send in a “bug report” to the developers, who are often able to incorporate a fix in the next version. Similarly developers are usually grateful for suggestions for improvements and new features (though they may not always have the resources to include these immediately).

Closed-source software

All this is in contrast to the way proprietary closed-source programs (Microsoft Office would be an example) work:

  • You can only (legally) run the program if you pay for a license — sometimes very expensive — to do so. Note that it’s usually only a license to use the program, sometimes with quite restrictive conditions attached — you don’t normally own the program you have paid for!
  • You can’t study the source code to see how the program works. If something doesn’t work, or you’d like it to do something new, your only hope is to wait until the manufacturer issues a new version. You’ll probably have to pay more money for that… If the manufacturer decides that they no longer want to support the program, you’re out of luck!
  • Typically you are only allowed to install the program on a set number of computers. If you want to use it (legally) on more, you will have to pay for more licenses. Aside from the costs, keeping track of licenses and installations is quite an administrative hassle. If you like the program and want to give a copy to your friend — sorry that’s not allowed.
  • Don’t even think about releasing your own improved or customised version of the software — some heavy lawyer’s letters will landing in your in-tray pretty soon!

Some examples

You may already be using free software! Many programs are in common use, including:

  • Free equivalents for commonly-used desktop programs, such as the Mozilla FireFox web browser, the Thunderbird email program, OpenOffice (a complete replacement for the Microsoft Office) and the Gimp image editing software.
  • The Apache web server (currently around 47% of all websites use Apache). Many more complex sites also use the MySQL open source database. Much of the software which runs behind the scenes to make the internet work is also open source.
  • The free GNU/Linux operating system is a complete replacement for the Windows or Mac OS systems. It is very widely used on servers, and is now becoming a viable alternative on desktop computers as well.
    Linux comes in many different versions (called “distributions”) — Ubuntu would be a good one to start with if you’d like to see how it works on a desktop computer. Ubuntu comes on a “live CD”, which lets you try it out without affecting your existing operating system. It’s simple to install if you want to go on using it permanently, and it comes with a wide range of application programs (all open source themselves of course).
  • CiviCRM is an open source and freely downloadable constituent relationship management solution. CiviCRM is web-based, open source, internationalised, and designed specifically to meet the needs of advocacy, non-profit and non-governmental groups. It is a powerful contact, fundraising and eCRM system that allows you to record and manage information about your various constituents including volunteers, activists, donors, employees, clients, vendors, etc.

Advantages for voluntary organisations:

  • The price is right! Software licensing can be a major budget item for small voluntary organisations, so free alternatives to expensive packages like Microsoft Office are well worth considering. Free software alternative like Linux will often run well on older, lower spec computers, so you could save on hardware costs as well (and there are environmental benefits here too, with fewer PCs going into landfill).
  • The free software approach of sharing information and working to benefit the community as a whole fits well with the ethical stance of most non-profit organisations.
  • There is no need to keep track of software licensing. When a new version of the software is released you can upgrade without additional costs.
  • If your organisation has particular specialised needs, there is the possibility of customising an existing program (or employing a programmer to do so). For example Oxfam decided to use the open source Plone content-management system as the backbone for its website. They employed a team of developers to adapt Plone to there needs; the changes were then fed back in to Plone to benefit the project as a whole.

Many large and medium-sized nonprofits, such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, make wide use of free software in their work.

Further reading:

The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) publishes Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits. Included is a Software Choice Worksheet to help you evaluate whether open source software would be a good choice for your organisation.

Deborah Elizabeth Finn’s article Open Source Software: Resources for Nervous Nonprofit Executives has some useful suggestions.

Social source commons is a place is a place for nonprofit organisations to share lists of software tools that they already use, gain knowledge and support, and discover new tools. It’s a place to meet people with similar needs and interests and answer the question: what tools do they use?