Why I Prefer Free, Open-Source Software


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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.


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  • Larry Rose

    Ironically, while trying to access your “Why I Prefer Free, Open-Source Software” post on Firefox, you ad box, appearing on the left side of the screen, covers about half of the substantive part of your post. I can only view it properly in Internet Explorer. What’s up with that?

  • We don’t have an ad box on this page except for those in the sidebar. I am using Firefox, too, and I do not have that problem. It sounds like you may have some spyware interfering with your browsing, but it did not come from this site. We aren’t nefarious, just trying to support the site.

    You might want to get SpyBot to check for spyware. If the ads still bug you, you can always add the AdBlock Plus extension to Firefox

  • Larry Rose

    Thanks, I’ll try it. I meant the sidebar. That’s what’s blocking much of the rest of the page. I haven’t noticed the issue with any other sites, and IE (which I rarely use these days) seems to work fine.

  • Larry Rose

    Very odd. The AdBlock Plus extension wiped out your sidebar. Is that what it’s supposed to do?

  • It sounds like it is working. You should still see the “popular posts” and “services” sections, but the ads should be gone.

  • It is great to see Free, Open Source Software being promoted to lawyers!

    We are starting to work to help developers, developer organisations and users/sponsors of Free, Open Source and Creative Commons works to deal with the legal issues arising from software development and associated corporate issues.

    Please keep up the dialogue!

    Andrew Perry
    Executive Director
    Free Open Creative Law

  • Malcolm Pearson

    I used Ubuntu 8.04 for over a year, with Open Office, GIMP, VLC, Evolution, Firefox and a good few useful tools.
    Because of application requirements I had to return to MS about 2 months ago.
    Ubuntu and the free applications were better than MS and Office. No virus scanning, no blue screens, faster, and boot up times must be less than half on Ubuntu.

    Roll on Saas, as then most will migrate to Linux and also Mac.

    BTW, the one application that in my opinion is still better than any other, is Outlook – but it does not justify all the other baggage.


  • Outlook is hard to get rid of, I agree. I finally did, but it took a couple years of weaning.

    I don’t use Ubuntu much anymore, either. But I still use nearly all free software on Windows 7. I did buy a spare hard drive for my ThinkPad, intending to install Ubuntu on it, but so far I like Windows 7 too much to make the effort.

  • Dan X. Nguyen, Esq.

    I try to use FOSS whenever possible, but it was collaboration with .doc files and pleadings that pushed me back to MS Word. For example, I would try to create pleadings in OpenOffice or NeoOffice and save in the .doc format. Even when I open up those same .doc files again in OO or NO, I would lose the pleading format. Pleadings in .odt file format I had no problem with, but I had to send these documents to others that didn’t have OO or NO. If pleadings wasn’t such a problem with NO or OO, I would stay with them.

  • OO.o is not perfect when it comes to .doc and .docx files, but I have stopped using them, anyway. I only use Word format when sharing files, and if I am collaborating, I either use Google Docs or ask my collaborator to install OO.o. If I am collaborating with opposing counsel, I use PDF files to mitigate the risk of harmful meta data getting loose.

  • Ken Wood

    I have completely converted to open source software in my legal documents. OO.o was a big part of this. I even produced a U.S. Supreme Court brief in OO.o. (cert denied unfortunately).

    I am now ready to take it to the next step. I am ready for open source Law Practice Management software. Any recommendations?

    Thanks much,


  • There really isn’t any open-source law practice management software. I think this is mainly because developers make what they need, and few lawyers are also developers and have time to make software on top of everything else.

  • Another problem I had with OO.o was that the number & bullet system just didn’t work as well as MS Word, and I preferred the reviewing panel features much more than OO.o. I want to like OO.o so much, but sometimes I want to pull my hair out.

  • The number and bullet system works differently than it does in Word, for sure. Once you understand how it works, though (the key is in numbering styles), it is so much easier to get it to do what you want.

    Once you adjust, going back to Word is just as frustrating.

    As for the reviewing/track changes features, they now work almost exactly the same as they do in Word.