Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Open Source Software & Its Legal Ramifications: What is Open Source Software?

Barbara I. BerschlerI will be writing a series of posts that examine various issues related to open source software and legal ramifications for the average business owner -– not just those working in the IT field. Initially, I will address the main differences between proprietary software and open source software.

More and more software is being written to respond to the explosion of computer driver services in business operations. So it is important to understand how that software is created, and what –- if any –- limitations to its use may accompany its acquisition by an individual/or business.

Software is written by a programmer to operate a particular computer program. A business owner can either buy “off the shelf” software, like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, or have some created for her special needs. What the business owner ends up with most likely is proprietary software. She pays for the use of the finished product -- and most likely is not given a version of the software to allow her to see “under the hood” of the program.

To know the inner workings of the software requires having access to the source code, i.e., the programmer’s instructions which have been compiled into a format that the computer can understand.

As part of the evolutionary process of writing software, a major path has emerged called open source software. So what does that term mean? It is software written by programmers to accomplish the same kinds of tasks as proprietary software. But using open source software means how the programmer obtained it, and how it can be further distributed may be subject to a set of requirements that are different from the proprietary version.

Proprietary software is often obtained for a fee, is used or distributed under an extensive license, and, most likely, does not give the user access to the source code. In contrast, open source software is obtained for free and the programmer/or user can see exactly how the software was constructed because the source code is revealed. In addition, the user may freely modify and distribute the modified software.

However, depending upon the originator of the software, there may be limitations placed on its further distribution. But unlike proprietary software, the object of such requirements is to advance the philosophical point of view of the author, rather than to seek an economic gain.

Next time I will discuss why open source software was developed. If you have comments on this topic or suggestions as to issues you would like me to cover, please let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the informative article on basics.

    I was wondering, do you do work with any tech startups or open source developers?