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
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
According to the Free Software Foundation’s What
is Free Software, these freedoms
- 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
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
- 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).
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
You may already be using free software! Many programs are in common use,
- 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
- 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,
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
- 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.
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?