Open Source Software

During the early days of computing, software came free with hardware. In later years, companies began charging separately for software and a multi-billion dollar market emerged. With the advent of Software as a Service (“SaaS”), one-time fees became yearly subscriptions, which continue in perpetuity. In each case, the source code for the software being licensed remained with the publisher. Some called it “closed source” software.

Free Software

In the nineties, a Finnish data scientist by the name of Linus Torvalds released an alternative to the UNIX operating system which he called Linux. He did so under the free GNU Public License, which made the underlying source code available for other developers to extend and improve on a collaborative basis. Within a matter of years, Linux became the leading operating system used across the Internet.

People soon began calling this practice “open source” to emphasize that the software was not only free, but included the program source code, modifiable by the recipient. This was a big step. Suddenly volunteer developers located anywhere in the world could collaborate on new releases, or even branch the code into different versions. As we moved into the twenty-first century, this open collaboration became a key part of software development. In the case of Linux, to pick one example, more than 15,600 developers  collaborated over the years to extend and enhance its code base.
Today more than 80% of the world’s Internet web servers run on open source software. Many programs use open source databases such as MySQL (now owned by Oracle) or PostgreSQL to manage program data. For full-text search, they use Lucene, or its offspring: ElasticSearch and Solr. The programming languages they use to develop these applications and many other proprietary programs are open source as well. Even the browser you are using to review this article is likely to be open source. Firefox is a product of the Mozilla Organization. Google’s Chrome browser came from its Chromium open source project. Microsoft’s new Edge browser, is based on Chromium as well.


The Linux Mascot

Why Open Source?

Why might a legal department or law firm use open source software? There are several reasons.

1. The Right Software for the Job

In many cases, the open source product is the best choice available. How could this be? The answer lies in the power of worldwide collaboration. Talented and committed developers from around the world regularly get involved in open source projects and work to make the code better and more feature rich than small proprietary teams can match. Law firms and legal departments are starting to share software through open source licenses as a service to the profession and because they expect to benefit as others make improvements. Legal departments and academic organizations are looking to open source projects that don’t go to the core of their business but solve problems that other organizations face as well.

2. Customizable

A second advantage is that open source software can be modified to fit specific needs. Once you download the source code, it can be a simple matter to extend or enhance the code. These new features are often contributed back to the original project which is what makes open source so vibrant and feature rich.

The Open Source Initiative

3. Free

Licensing costs can add up quickly, especially for larger computing needs. Open source applications are licensed for free. To be clear, free does not mean without costs. All software has to be installed, configured, managed and supported. But at the least, there are no license fees to be paid.

4. Secure

Are these applications secure? Yes. Properly developed open source software can be just as secure as commercial software. In many cases it can be more secure because it has been reviewed and tested by a broad group of individuals who also have an interest in secure code. Open source software that has come from reputable developers or a well-established collaboration project has proven to be just as secure as proprietary software.

5. Enterprise Versions

Some companies offer paid “enterprise” versions of open source software, which may alleviate concerns about security and reliability. Red Hat, for example, charges for its distribution of Linux, offering support, bug fixes, customization and enhanced security. (IBM recently bought the company for $54 billion.) Likewise, many open source database and search providers offer enterprise versions that include support, security checking, customization and even hosting services. Companies pay a monthly or yearly fee for enterprise services, but get an added level of support and comfort in return.

Ultimately, many of the largest technology companies in the world have joined the open source movement. Google, for example, has placed over 2000 of its software projects into the open source community. Microsoft has also gotten active in the open source community, making thousands of its software projects open. Amazon is also a part of the community contributing hundreds of open source projects over the past decade.

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