Open Source Software: To be, or Not to be Free?

“Open Source Software: To be, or Not to be Free?”

Dear Sloan,

I’m an experienced project manager, who recently took a job in technology. Coming from the healthcare industry, I have a lot to learn about all of the terminology used in the tech industry.  Just when I thought I understood the definition of “open source software”, my project team told me that does not necessarily mean it is free. So then what is open source software if it’s not free software?  I use Kanboard to manage projects, which is open source, and I don’t pay for Kanboard – it’s free. So I’m told I’m mixing up free with open source software, but I don’t understand how?

Free to be me,

Caleb in Colorado

Dear Caleb,

To answer your question, let me start by explaining what open source software is, as free and open source are not one-in-the-same. Open source software (OSS) is software code stored in a public repository. It’s open to the world, and anyone who wants to work with the code can download it and reuse it. Developers build it into their proprietary code, where they can modify it and share it. Typically, more than 80% of software application uses OSS. This means the developers build about 20% of the code from scratch, the rest was OSS reused code. That’s cool because it helps developers work more efficiently. 

Why reinvent the wheel?

For example, think of an application that you use that requires you to login. It’s likely the developer of the application used OSS code to add the login code to the application. Think of it like this – if you’re baking a cake, the recipe requires flour. You’ll use the flour in your cupboard, rather than making your own by picking wheat in a field, and then cleaning, separating, sifting, grinding, and milling it. That’s an analogy for reusing open source code.

What are some examples of open source software in use?

You mentioned that you use Kanboard to manage projects and workflows? Kanboard is also open source. Have you ever used Firefox to browse the internet? Then you used an open source software application. If you search, you’ll find an open source equivalent to many commercial products available. This could save an organization thousands of dollars. Here are a few more examples of OSS vs Commercial counterparts:

  • Open Office vs Microsoft Office
  • Kanboard vs Microsoft Project
  • Gimp or Paint vs Photoshop

I don’t pay to use Kanboard, so isn’t it free?

You asked me if Kanboard is free, since you don’t pay for it. Yes, and No. Yes, Kanboard is a free tool for you to use. It’s open source software that developers can download. They can modify it, and add it to their proprietary code if desired. But – the free code comes with some license restrictions.  An OSS License is a license that allows the software to be freely used, modified, and shared. It is intended to protect the software, and allows the code to remain open sourced.

Some license types are very straight forward. For example, Permissive or Liberal license are very simple. You can do whatever you want with the code, use at your own risk, and acknowledge the author(s) of the code. Other license types are quite restrictive. Developers must understand what each license permits them to do with the code, what it restricts them from doing with the code, and any additional conditions to take into account. Because of the license requirements, it’s not ‘free to use in any way desired’.

There’s a lot to know about the legalities of using Open Source Software. If you’re interested to keep on learning, check out the elearning course on Open Source Software Licenses – What You Need to Know.  You might find this quick reference guide handy, as well as our short guide to What is OSS?  Let us know what experiences you have had, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the comments below.

Your friend in cyber security,

~ Making Cyber a Safer Space

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