The Open Source Software

What is Open Source Software (OSS)?

Open source software is computer software that has a source code available to the general public for use as is or with modifications. This software typically does not require a license fee. Open source software is unique in that it is always released under a license that allows users to access, modify and redistribute the source code. Source code is a specialized language that allows software developers to create and modify computer programs. If you do not have legal access to the source code, then the program cannot be changed or moved to a different kind of computer.

There are open source software applications for a variety of different uses such as office automation, web design, content management, operating systems, and communications. The key fact that makes open source software (OSS) different from proprietary software is its license. As copyright material, software is almost always licensed. The license indicates how the software may be used. OSS is unique in that it is always released under a license that has been certified to meet the criteria of the Open Source Definition. These criteria include the right to:

• Redistribute the software without restriction;

• Access the source code;

• Modify the source code; and

•Distribute the modified version of the software.

Desirable software attributes

There is widespread debate over the relative merits of proprietary software and OSS. However, it is difficult to make general comparisons; most analysts say comparisons should be made only on a case-by-case basis. It is generally agreed that whether software is open source or proprietary, the following attributes are of key importance:

  • Reliability
  • Quality
  • Security
  • Flexibility
  • project management
  • open standards
  • switching costs
  • total cost of ownership (TCO)
  • user-friendliness

Use of open source software

The private sector

There is increasing awareness and uptake of OSS within the private sector, with OSS and proprietary software becoming increasingly interwoven. Major corporations such as IBM believe it enables them to make use of a worldwide community of developers to improve their products and services. Some industry commentators suggest that OSS will lead to a more competitive software industry. Currently over 67% of web-servers run open source software called Apache6. The majority of websites and email systems run on OSS. Worldwide, around 30% of infrastructural computers run GNU/Linux, an open source operating system. However, use of OSS on the desktop is more limited: over 96% of desktop computers still use Microsoft Windows. OSS has inspired new portable device projects, such as the ‘Simputer’. This is a small, inexpensive, handheld computer, intended to bring computing power to India and other emerging economies.

Open source software in government

Governments’ interest in OSS is increasing, due to their reliance on sophisticated software. The UK Office of Government Commerce released a series of case studies in October 2004 outlining how OSS has been used in the public sector .However, UK parliamentary responses to questions on the use of OSS in government show that uptake is still limited7. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is funding the ‘Open Source Academy’ project. This is intended to overcome barriers to uptake of OSS in local government such as lack of information, skills, confidence and lack of suitable products.

 Legal issues

Copyright

Software is protected using the copyright system. Relying on the same protection as on books, music or film, the buyer of software is licensed the use of a copy of the product. Proprietary software is normally distributed under an ‘all rights reserved’ license where the rights to exploit the software are held by the copyright owner. Open source relies on copyright law to give legal backing to the licenses under which it is released.

Software patents

Whereas copyright protects software code from being copied, patents can be used to prevent the innovative solution or effects of the software from being copied (what it does and how it does it). Government grants the patent holder rights, in return for sharing the information on how the technical result was achieved. The extent to which software should be patentable is controversial. A key issue is whether the software has a ‘technical effect’ (for example controls the function of a robot arm) or is used for a ‘business process’ (no technical effect). In the US, it is possible to patent software used for business processes. Amazon, for example, has patented the ‘1-click’ process, which gives a monopoly on ‘clicking once’ using a mouse to buy a product from a website. As all websites are built on the idea of clicking links, patent experts have argued that these broad ‘business process’ patents can be destructive by granting a monopoly on standard processes. This affects open source developers because, when writing a piece of software, they may not realize that the software technique is patented. Currently, ‘business processes’ are not patentable in the EU. There is widespread debate over the ‘EU Computer Implemented Inventions Directive’, awaiting its second reading in the European Parliament. Under this directive, software will be patentable only if it has a technical effect. However, there are concerns that this may lead to widespread granting of patents, because it is hard to make the distinction between whether software is used for a business process or for a technical effect. Developers and users of OSS, and some small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), have voiced concerns over the potential negative impact of the directive on the competitiveness of the software industry. Proponents say software patenting is already possible in the EU; the directive will not allow patents in new areas. The UK Patent Office says the directive aims to ‘clarify the situation’ and to ‘prevent a drift towards the more liberal regime of the US. Moreover, it is pointed out that business processes cannot be patented under the directive. Proponents (including some SMEs) also argue that patent protection is needed to encourage innovations and investment in research and development. 

Example of OSS are Mozilla, firebox, apache, Ubuntu, Open Office, etc.

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