The case for open source software

From the BrainSTEM/Science & Technology by

“Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer,’” leading software freedom activist Richard M. Stallman explained via the Free Software Foundation.

Open source software is computer software published under a copyright license where the copyright holder provides the rights for the study, change, and distribution of the software’s source code for any purpose. This is important not just for the advancement of technology but for the freedom of expression as an innate human right.

Currently, developers can release software under a few main types of licenses. The General Public License (GPL) demands any modified software from the product—including source code—must be placed under the same type of license. In contrast to traditional copyright laws, this license—often referred to as ‘copyleft’—allows developers to use and modify other developers’ code.

“The GPL is built on copyright, but disables the restrictions of copyright to allow for modification, distribution, and access,” Dr. Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill, wrote in an essay published in Cultural Anthropology. “It is also self-perpetuating because it requires others to adopt the same license if they modify copylefted software.”

In Nov., Tom Erickson, CEO and co-founder of Acquia and Drupal, came to McGill to discuss open source software business models. Founded in 2008, Acquia is a service provider for Drupal—a Content Management System (CMS) similar to WordPress and one of the largest open source communities in the world.

Acquia is a notable example of a company that profits from an open source business model. However, how can companies make money off of open source software if they are providing it for free?

One of the questions I've always hated answering is, ‘how do people make money in open source?’” Linux founder Linus Torvalds said back in 1999. “There are a number of […] Linux companies going public [that] basically show that yes, you can actually make money in the open-source area.”

Business models often include charging a fee for service, such as training services for an open source product. Delayed open source is another viable choice, where the company agrees that its software will become open source at some point in the future. In addition, there is support through advertising, where the product remains open source while the company obtains revenue through advertising.

Providing training and other services for users of Drupal open source utilities is Acquia’s primary business model. Acquia’s paid subscription software helps people if they are experiencing difficulties installing or making money with Drupal. In this way, Acquia creates a cooperative environment and fosters success on both the producer and consumer end. In addition, Acquia fosters collaboration by hosting conferences that promote open source software. Cooperation and collaboration are important because they spur many people to participate and advance specific technologies and thus grow and learn together. In fact, security is often greater for open source products because a significant amount of people are working on the product, instead of just a few people working on a proprietary model. With more eyes on a project, potential security threats are usually discovered more quickly.

Open source software is an important vessel for open participation and innovation. By allowing people to learn from each other’s work and advance different technologies, society can more effectively and quickly benefit from open source software.