free-open-source-softwareThe terms free software and open-source software are hovering at the fringe of most computer users’ consciousness. But whether you know it or not, you already use a lot of free, open-source software every day. You could be saving considerable money by using it in your law practice, too.

Free, open-source software is secure, reliable, and—best of all—cheap. And some open-source software is at least arguably better than its proprietary competition.

What does free mean?

Free software and open source software are not necessarily the same thing. The word free has two meanings, after all: gratis (free as in beer) and libertas (free as in freedom). Open source is yet another aspect.

Gratis means software you can get at no cost. Libertas, on the other hand, means you can do whatever you want with the software, including sell it, change it, and copy it. Open source means you can view the source code of the software

Some open-source software is actually quite expensive (Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for example). Some free software is not open source (Skype or AOL Instant Messenger).

I usually refer to free and open-source software as “free software”, following the Free Software Foundation’s lead.

Who makes it?

Free software is built and maintained by “the community,” which includes highly-paid software developers at IBM, Sun, and Novell, as well as the proverbial teenage coder living in his parents’ basement. Most of the largest free software projects, like Mozilla Firefox, Ubuntu Linux, OpenOffice.org, and Evolution, are maintained by well-funded, large organizations that have a stake in the project.

Some of these companies make money by selling support. Others are non-profits. Still others make money by saving it, using free software instead of expensive, proprietary software like Microsoft Windows or Office.

Even small projects have a project maintainer who is responsible for what goes into the compiled software that is released to the public.

You are already using free software

If you use the internet, you are using free software. Probably 95% or more of the servers that run the web run Linux. E-mail, websites, and instant messaging are mostly based on open-source software and protocols. This website, like many others, runs on the free software, WordPress, running on a Linux server filled with free, open-source software.

Why I prefer free software

First, because I do not have to pay for it. My overhead is large enough without paying for software upgrades every year or two. With free software, I can be up and running on a new computer without paying for anything but the hardware.

Second, because some free software is better—in my opinion—than the proprietary alternatives. Learning to use OpenOffice.org Writer took some adjustment, but once I adjusted, I found it more logical and easy to use than Microsoft Word. Mozilla Firefox is a faster, more flexible browser than the Windows default, Internet Explorer. KeePass helps me keep my passwords straight. The GIMP and Inkscape are powerful image -creation and editing tools. They are not exactly better than Photoshop or Illustrator, but unless you are a graphics professional, they get the job done just fine. VLC Player allows me to play just about any audio or video file I may come across, while the native multimedia players on Windows, Mac, and Linux are far less useful.

Third, because I do not want to be tied down by proprietary software. I need to be able to share files—and use the same software—on Macs, Windows PCs, and Linux PCs. All the above software works on all three platforms. The same is not true of Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, Photoshop, etc.