Why 'Free Open Source Software' isn’t actually free?

9th August 2018
Anna Flockett

So often we hear the term Open Source Software (OSS) and closely connect that term with the word ‘free’. But what does this actually mean?  Is it free? And are there risks involved, especially for enterprise customers in the public or private sector? OSS is software where the software code is publicly accessible and anyone can modify, enhance and share. This differs from proprietary software which is governed by a license issued by the software’s authors that determines how that software can be accessed, used, modified and distributed.

By its very nature, OSS encourages a community of users to collaborate, share and modify the source code to improve and enhance the product. There are licenses for OSS which reflect this approach by requiring modifications to be shared with the community.

OSS has its uses and its benefits but there are some real catches when trying to use OSS and data operationally, especially in an enterprise or commercial context. And each of these catches can add a cost.

The thought that 'just having access to the source code' somehow protects the user/customer is a real misunderstanding for the following reasons:

First, the licencing approach can be tricky to navigate. For example, licensing terms can change fairly regularly so merely understanding when you are and aren’t breaking the rules can be difficult. It’s also not just one OSS license to contend with but potentially a myriad of other embedded OSS, each with their own license terms.

Second, in an enterprise or commercial environment, OSS needs to work at scale (which it often does) and needs to be maintained. There is a cost of maintenance that enterprise customers require and this is not easy for source code that is continually changing with a range of quality that reflects the varying standards of a community of software developers that are modifying that source code. 

Third, enterprise and commercial customers require ‘legacy protection’ for the next version of their product or solution.  However, there have been instances where the code needed to be completely re-written for future versions because the OSS code and APIs had more or less changed beyond recognition during previous revisions.

No doubt proprietary software is a concern to customers in the public and private sector because of the requirement of expensive licences with potential vendor lock-in (a subject of a future blog).  However, at least with proprietary software there is a supplier of that software code that has complete accountability over performance, maintenance and version release.

OSS has its place but it should not be a knee jerk reaction to proprietary software, especially as OSS appears to have become a mantra for certain Government and Enterprise procurement departments. Pick the best of both worlds – it’s about balancing cost and risk so there’s a need to understand both.  Open Source Software is an ethos that is open and free to use but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s free when it comes to cost.

Guest article written by Roger Brackin, Strategic Geospatial Advisor, Envitia.

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